California’s last juvenile fire camp could close due to state budget cuts. Though critics question putting young inmates in danger for as little as $1 an hour, supporters say it’s one of the few proven models for rehabilitation.
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At 16, Antoinio Wellington entered California’s juvenile justice system for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. At 19, he served the remaining two years of his sentence at the Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, a fenceless firefighting training facility tucked in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Amador County.
There in the forest, he learned how to operate chainsaws and carve firebreaks — skills that enabled him to land a job within months of his release as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.
Wellington, now 24, credits the camp for his transformation calling himself “living proof” that the camp works. He returns several times a year to counsel current wards. He says, “without that guidance and that leadership and the work skills and the hustle,” he could very well be back behind bars.
As fire season returns, California stands to lose Pine Grove, the state’s last juvenile fire camp where young inmates train to fight wildfires. Supporters say it’s one of the few proven models for rehabilitation, where juvenile offenders can earn time off their sentences and find purpose once they return to society. Others hope closing the camp will result in earlier releases.
The camp is falling victim to the state’s $54 billion budget deficit as Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers seek savings from every department. Under the current proposal, the state would close all juvenile facilities, including the fire camp, to save an initial $11 million. About 800 young offenders in the Department of Juvenile Justice would be handed off to county probation departments in an effort to keep them in their communities and closer to their families.
Justice reform advocates have mixed feelings about using inmates to fight wildfires because while they can provide skills training, it puts their lives at risk for virtually no pay. Even if Pine Grove closes, the state will continue to run more than three dozen fire camps for adult inmates.
Still, supporters, including Wellington, say the youth fire camp is worth keeping open for the sake of the wards and the camp’s surrounding community.
When Amador County faced the raging Butte Fire in 2015, local officials say a firebreak, a gap in vegetation that can slow the spread of a fire, saved the county. That firebreak was cut by the camp’s wards.
“I think it’s a terrible idea to close the camp down,” Wellington said. “All it’s going to do is create more incarcerated youth versus more productive members of society.”
A rural county rallies behind the camp
The community of Pine Grove embraces the fire camp and its 70 wards. In the ‘90s, busloads of residents rallied at the state Capitol to save the camp from budget cuts. Their activism succeeded, which has allowed the camp to continue to operate.
Residents treat wards as heroes, cheering them with standing ovations at Fourth of July and Memorial Day parades.
“This is how I want my tax dollars being spent,” said Laura Imperial, a hairdresser who has spent decades on a citizen advisory council for the camp. “I don’t want it being spent on them just going to an adult prison, sitting there.”
Unlike other juvenile facilities that more closely resemble adult prisons, the camp has no fencing, barbed wire or guard tower. Wards at Pine Grove, who are at at least 18 to fight fires, learn how to weld, use chainsaws and operate heavy machinery such as forklifts. Hand crews receive training from CalFire firefighters and perform thousands of hours of fire suppression annually, said Mike Sicilia, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees the juvenile justice division.
A privately funded documentary about the youth fire camp is slated for release next year.
Shifting California’s juvenile system
There’s ongoing debate for how to treat juvenile offenders, particularly as nationwide protests seek institutional changes for law enforcement’s treatment of African Americans, who are overrepresented in the prison system.
Some argue it’s more rehabilitative to allow young offenders to stay close to family and community-based organizations. Others say they should be removed from gang affiliations and negative influences. In some facilities, wards are separated by race and gang affiliation.
Youth justice advocates worry the state’s swift decision to abolish the Department of Juvenile Justice could inadvertently lead to more juvenile offenders being sent to adult prisons. Under state law, 16- and 17-year-olds are eligible to be transferred to adult prisons.
“I could see many kids who do what on paper is legitimately a robbery, but in reality could be a phone snatch, resulting in a transfer to the adult system,” said Frankie Guzmán, director of the Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland.
Guzmán, who served six years in the juvenile system, said the state needs to think through its plan to hand hundreds of young offenders to county law enforcement officials. Before the pandemic sent shockwaves through the state, the Newsom administration sought to decriminalize the program by transferring the department to the Health and Human Services Agency. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about its change of heart.
Conservatives oppose the cut
Now, Amador County residents are coming to the camp’s defense again.
“This camp is a shining example of rehabilitation of these young men,” said Patrick Crew, chairman of the Amador County Board of Supervisors, which sent a letter to the governor and state lawmakers urging the camp to remain open.
Even conservatives from the area oppose the camp’s closure.
“This is not the place to cut California’s over-inflated budget,” wrote Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, a Madera Republican, in an email statement. “This program mitigates the damage from catastrophic wildfires, protects clean drinking water for Californians, and provides job training for disadvantaged youth.”
State Sen. Andreas Borgeas, a Fresno Republican, echoed Bigelow’s sentiment: “Pine Grove equips youth with jobs skills and educational opportunities in order to contribute to our state’s economy.”
The ethics of fire camps
Pine Grove is the smallest and cheapest juvenile justice facility to run at about $5 million a year. The state spends about $70,000 per ward, but that’s a fraction of the other facilities.
By comparison, the youth correctional facility in Stockton spends about $160,000 per youth offender, according to department reports.
Still, fire camps have faced both praise and criticism, especially for those who serve in the camp and have trouble finding work as firefighters later. To improve their chances of getting hired, Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, a Colton Democrat, has proposed a bill to speed up the expungement process for inmates who successfully serve at fire camps.
Some question the ethics of fire camp. Wards are paid $1 per hour for their work in the front lines of a roaring fire.
“What universe are we living in? You go, put your life on the line, you could quite possibly die,” said Jay Jordan, the executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice and an advocate who has served time in prison. “If we’re sending them to fire camps and we’re saying that they’re good people, why are they still in prison?”
But for some former wards, the camp experience can offer direction — and teach tolerance.
“It changed my whole life,” said 24-year-old Jesus Hernandez, who spent three years at Pine Grove. “Every week when I went to work with those captains, I was learning something and I was gaining something.”
He learned to look past race and creed.
“At camp, they didn’t care who you were,” Hernandez said. “You could be black, white, Mexican, Asian. If you didn’t like each other and they put you on the same crew, you learned to like each other.”