Female inmates on Mission Trails fire lines

Two crews of a dozen young women each hiked toward Kwaay Paay Peak on Sunday in Mission Trails Regional Park, carrying chainsaws and shovels. They were paid $2 a day, and grateful.

Female prison inmate crews hike into area for brush-clearing at Mission Trails Regional Park.

Hailing from Cal Fire’s Rainbow Conservation Camp near Warner Springs, the female firefighters were a part of a decades-old program that saves California taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

They are prison inmates.

“It is dangerous duty,” says Bill Sessa, a Sacramento spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “When you cut a fire line, it has to be completely clean. Each person on crew has a specific assignment,” led by the chainsaw user and followed by others who clear fire lines in sometimes rugged territory.

If they weren’t at Rainbow, they’d be doing time in Chino, Chowchilla or a prison near Folsom, Sessa said.

“We almost never have a problem with [inmate] fire crews,” Sessa said, even though they work 12 to 15 hours at a stretch.

All the women — ranging from 18 to their early 30s — are volunteers. Sessa said Monday they are among hundreds of women statewide (and 4,300 inmates all told) who get two days off their sentence for each day they spend at the camps. (But no lifers on the crews.)

Other female camps are in Malibu and one other in San Diego County called Puerta de la Cruz. Overall, 42 camps operate in California.

Rainbow began operations on Oct. 1, 1946, with a few male inmates, corrections staff and Cal Fire employees, the state prisons website says.

“The camp made history again when in 1983 it became an all-female inmate camp. The camp remained under the administrative supervision of the Sierra Conservation Center until October 2005, when the California Institution for Women took over the operation of Rainbow, Puerta La Cruz and the Malibu Conservation Camps.”

When not fighting fires alongside professional crews around the state, inmates clear brush, do weed abatement and perform other community service. They’re paid $2 a day in canteen credits whether they are out fighting fires or not. Men are paid the same.

How do such women become firefighters?

Sessa says they are scored based on prison behavior, participation in rehabilitation programs and good discipline. They must obey rules, show good teamwork — and be physically fit.

In fact, they go through training similar to that given Cal Fire crews.

Sessa says he saw one such session — where the women in full fire gear, carrying 50-pound packs, hiked 4 1/2 miles in 90-degree heat — in less than 85 minutes.

“Then they had to make a fire line in brush the length of a football field in under an hour,” he said.

On Sunday, the women were overseen by four corrections supervisors. They proceeded in a line up the Oak Grove Loop trail.

How’d they do at Mission Trails?

“The fire is out,” Sessa said, adding that another crew was checking for hot spots Monday.

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