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State prison firefighters on the frontlines of Sonoma County wildfires

Arthur Ortega and the inmates of Cal Fire Parlin Fork crews 1 and 4 cut a wide fire break above a group of homes along Van Arsdale Road while the Redwood Complex fire burns along the hill above them, in Potter Valley, California on Friday, October 13, 2017. "My son saw me being taken to jail. Now he can see I'm here doing something good," says Ortega, who has been working on the fire line with his crew since the start of the Redwood Complex fire. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

NICK RAHAIM,

The main firefight Tuesday night was up Pythian Road off Highway 12, where crews lit backfires to block the western spread of the Oakmont branch of the Nuns fire threatening homes around Rincon Valley.

Firefighters Mark Hill and Vernon Royal were on the frontline, fighting fire with fire and cutting containment breaks where bulldozers couldn’t. Unlike most firefighters they wore orange gear instead of yellow and were only earning $1 an hour.

The two are inmates at the minimum-security Mount Bullion Conservation Camp in Mariposa County, operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They have traveled around the state since June fighting wildfires, logging around 2,000 hours of work.

“It’s a great way to give back,” Hill, 43, said outside his tent at a camp tucked in the far end of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. “People wave to us and show us appreciation, which feels good given where we’re at in life.”

There are 10 inmate strike teams, totaling some 250 inmates, currently living at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, said Cal Fire Capt. Steve Meadows. There are another two or three female inmate fire crews working on Sonoma County fires, he said.

About 100 prisoners from four strike teams carved out a fire line to protect hundreds of homes in Rincon Valley on Tuesday night, Meadows said.

“I expressed my pride to them. They put in a very meaningful piece of line,” Meadows said of his inmate strike teams’ work. “It was the last piece of open line on all the fires.”

Hill, sporting a thick goatee, is from Yucca Valley and serving an eight-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon. Royal, 36, with a scruffy beard, is from Fresno and serving three years on robbery changes.

Standing in the late-afternoon sun at the fairgrounds, both men wore orange prison jumpsuits opened at the chest exposing gray undershirts, trucker hats with their unit name “Mount Bullion CC 39,” socks and flip-flops.

The general population in California prisons is typically self-segregated based on race, said Hill, who is white, and Royal, who is black. While the prisoner strike teams aren’t always harmonious units, they’re a lot better than what’s inside, they said.

Royal has served on Mount Bullion’s fire crew for two years, Hill for one.

“It’s lovely out here. It’s like you’re free,” Royal said. “You get your term cut short, the food is better and it’s a better atmosphere.”

The two men spent Wednesday hiding from the sun and trying to get sleep in a large tan tent that holds their 26-inmate strike team. From 7:30 a.m. Tuesday to 7:30 a.m. Wednesday the two men had worked the fire lines east of Santa Rosa with their unit.

“You’re right before the fire cutting a line. It’s hot, it’s intense,” Royal said. “But the work ethic will help me when I finally get out.”

Corrections officers are responsible for overseeing the unit at the fairgrounds. When the inmates are in the field they are the responsibility of Cal Fire captains such as Meadows.

According to Sgt. Keith Silva with Corrections and Rehabilitation, inmates have to meet certain medical and criminal history requirements to be eligible for fire camp. They can sign up to take a four-week course at the Sierra Conservation Center in Tuolumne County or the California Correctional Center in Lassen County. The curriculum consists of two weeks of physical training and two weeks of fire training, he said.

“We have issues from time to time, typically fights and work refusal,” Silva said. “An inmate even walked away from the fireline in Orange County a few days ago.”

On Sunday, inmate firefighter Armando Castillo, 31, who was serving a five-year sentence for multiple felonies, walked away from his post on the Canyon 2 fire and remains at large.

For the most part, prisoner fire crews are well-behaved, Silva said.

Hill looked around the camp — tucked behind hundreds of tents for professional firefighters — and said camaraderie is built in the firelines and in close confines.

Working directly with fire crews has changed Meadows’ once-suspicious views on prison labor on the frontline of California wildfires.

“They are doing a very good job for very little pay,” Meadows said. “They put a lot on the line for the residents of California.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203.