A hidden valley in the San Bernardino mountain foothills transformed this week into a full scale fire drill operation, as hundreds of inmate firefighters trained for fire season.
The crews, who came from Riverside County's three conservation camps, each took part in a series of drills to test their firefighting skills in Hathaway Canyon inside the Morongo Indian Reservation.
It's all part of Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire's annual “Fire Preparedness Exercise," held each year to brush up the men's skills before calls for service will inevitably go up in fire season; a season that's predicted to be especially strong after low rain totals this winter has led to already-dry brush in much of the area.
Banning-Beaumont Patch caught up with a group of the crews as they trained Wednesday.
"Today is a test of the crew readiness for fire season," Cal Fire Captain Doug Cade told Patch. "We're always ready to go, but what occurs now is the fine tuning."
Inmate fire crews are a crucial part to Cal Fire's response efforts— in fact, they're the only ones who the agency employs to build the containment lines around fires, according to Chief Mark Barr, who heads the Battalion out of Lake Elsinore and regularly helps proctor the drills.
"We ensure that they're safe and ready to go and serve the public," Barr said. "...Really rigorous testing where they actually go through and are tested on the safety and operational procedures that they would be doing out on the fire line."
Captain Cade said the 17 crews, each headed by a Cal Fire battalion chief, are relied on not only in Riverside County, but throughout California, "from the Mexican border to the Oregon border."
For their efforts, they get paid $1 an hour while fighting a blaze, on top of their base pay of $1.45 - $3.90, according to Cade and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Those containment lines were the primary focus of Wednesday's drills, as each crew of approximately 15 people had two hours to go through 900 feet of medium fuel brush and create a fire line that was six feet wide, with four of those feet scraped down to the dirt.
Each crew is divided into three main groups: those who first come through with the saws, followed by the "grubbers," or people who rid the soil of branches and foliage, and finally the "scrappers," who literally scrape the ground until it's a clear dirt patch.
It's not an easy job, but it's one the men take seriously and are proud to do.
"It helps right the wrongs, the things that we did, the bad choices that we made," said inmate Ronald Gutierrez. "It helps us make sure that we feel good about what we're giving back to the community."
Besides building a fire line, the crews also had to practice "tooling out" as they would when first arriving at the scene of a fire, and also take part in an one hour hike up a nearby hill.