Life as a FireCamper Spouse
Even before my Wife was sentenced to prison, she had decided that she wanted to qualify to go to fire camp. She knew she could get a reduced sentence and could possibly be closer to home. She also knew about the extreme physical requirements. She was willing and able. So, after the process of County Jail, Receiving (Classification), she was sent to CIW (California Institute For Women) in Corona, CA. That’s where she would train and be tested to see if she would qualify for Fire Camp. She had a very low security level, so that was not a problem. It was the physical training that she was concerned about. She actually started training on her own before the actually “fire camp training” started. It helped. Tons of cardio. She also made sure that she stayed away from certain foods and stayed constantly hydrated. The training provided by the prison was done by an inmate that was a personal trainer before her incarceration. As my Wife put it “I like her, she doesn’t put up with the whiney women”. The training was to get you ready for the actual PFT (Cal Fire Test). My Wife also told me that about half of the inmates trying out for fire camp were there just to get out of the normal day to day prison duties. But, once the workouts started, those there to “kick back” were quickly sent back to where they came. My Wife had heard that if you ended up being “Top Hiker” of your class, you could pick which camp you wanted to go to. Being from San Diego, she really had three places she would be sent, Rainbow (Fallbrook), Malibu, or Puerta La Cruz (Warner Springs). Her top pick was Rainbow. Rainbow was less than an hour drive for us. So, she made that her goal. She was telling me, most of the women wanted to go to Malibu. So, that was good too. She was so driven to get that “Top Hiker”. So, a couple of weeks went by. She worked so hard. Became “friends” with another would be camper. A few of the women were getting angry and frustrated with my Wife. Saying, she was trying to make them “look bad”. They did not matter to my Wife. Bottom line, she was there to get as close to her family as possible. As she always said “Her eyes were on the prize”. In the end, she made “Top Hiker”. Even as an “Inmate”, the Fire Captains respected her. So, she chose Rainbow Conservation Camp. We were overjoyed ! Everything would change for us. No more VPASS (Scheduling for prison visits), driving 2 hours to see her, razor wire, vending machines, and the smell of urine as you wait to for your name to be called. This was a totally different world. A “normal” feel. A “human” feel. Visits are on the weekend. 9:30am - 3pm. Way out in the back country. The only fences there are a “ranch style” fence to keep wildlife out. You are visiting in an area that looks exactly like a campground. Benches under oak trees, barbecues, and a play area for kids. The camp is run by Cal Fire. There is minimal law enforcement. The 2 correctional officers my Son and I met on our first visit were so cool. Very friendly and helpful. Again, I will use the term “human”. I say that, because when he had visited her at County and CIW, it was awful. It was almost like the CO’s tried to make sure you never came back. So, it was nice. After checking in, seeing my Wife walk as fast as she can (no running) to come see us was awesome ! She was dressed in bright orange pants, with “prisoner” down the leg and a bright orange long sleeve shirt. Along with the standard huge, tall, black forest boots. My Son had lots of questions for her. Do you get hot wearing that ? Are those boots comfortable ? What do you eat ? It was cool. What was also cool, was that you could bring in food for your loved one. You could bring in food to barbecue too. Fast food, homemade food, snacks, and drinks (water / Soda). etc.
They are also allowed 2-3 calls a week, 15 minutes each. Sounds and is way better than the mainstream crap she came from. It was a privilege to be there. If you screwed up there (fighting, drugs, attitude with CO’s) you got shipped back to the mainstream immediately. My Wife saw a few of these. The privilege to be there was constantly “paid” for by extremely hard work. Speaking of pay, while out fighting fires, the inmates get around $1.00 an hour. While at camp waiting to be sent out, inmates get less than $2.00 a day. They save the state of CA millions of dollars in labor costs. Extreme cheap labor traded for 2 for 1 credits. I’m sure every one of those women in camp will say they have never worked harder in their lives, including my Wife. I have become color blind. Every time I have gone to visit her, I don’t even notice the orange. These women made a mistake and to me have stepped up and are really helping firefighters. They ARE firefighters. The wildfires here in CA could not be fought without the help of these men and women.
I would say the only drawback about having a loved one in fire camp is you never know when they will leave for a fire. Well, unless you are visiting and the siren goes off. That’s happened twice so far. That, is very hard to see. They get up, run off and get all their gear. You just stand and watch as they line up for a count and briefing. Then they will line up to head to the bus. You hope for a quick glimpse and wave before they leave. Definitely has left me very emotional. If you’re not there when they leave, you figure it out during the week when the calls aren’t coming in. One of the last fires she was on, she was gone for about 40 days. That was actually a new record for Rainbow. As she described to me, nerves were frayed and tempers ran high towards the end of that. But, another cool thing for them, they have their mail brought to them wherever they are and they can send mail out. That was our main communication during the 40 day outing. Mail only take 2-3 days to get to and from the campers. Which is wonderful. CIW was taking 7-14 days. Being a couple days off of communication wasn’t bad. Depending on the day they came back, you might not hear from them unless you actually visit them. You would call the day before or same morning you plan your visit. You can’t ask if they are there though. It’s “Can you tell me if crew 5 is in ?” Your answer is usually a “Yes” or “No” and that’s it. The stories Kelly came back with were amazing. Sleeping on the side of a mountain, wrapping telephone poles as the fire is shooting up the hill towards them. I remember that story because she was telling me it wounded like a waterfall as the fire was engulfing the brush. Somersaulting down a steep hill and it not being on purpose. Like I said, unforgettable stories and memories. That summer of 2015 was like a war zone in California. I remember always making sure I was in front of the TV on time for the local news. I followed Cal Fire on twitter too. If she were in camp, I wanted to get an idea of where she might go or how bad it was wherever she was at. We could only guess where she was, obviously she couldn’t tell you. Some of the fires she went on in 2015, North Fire, Rough Fire, Cabin Fire. Shovels, picks, chainsaws. She did all. She is amazing to me. The toughest person I’ve ever known. I have so much respect for all the inmate firefighters. You don’t hear a lot about them. But, they are such a big part of the effort. Kelly won’t talk much about everything she did. It’s not because she’s embarrassed, it’s because she doesn’t like to talk about herself or “brag”. It’s just not her style. She gave so much, sometimes I wish she would.