L.A. County graduates its first batch of jail inmate firefighters

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Some 110 men serving time in Los Angeles County jails hope the color orange will remind them more of a firefighting jacket than a jail jumpsuit.

“We are better, more successful men than we were yesterday,” inmate Michael Pitts said during an inmate firefighter graduation ceremony this week at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.

For the first time, L.A. County has its own crop of inmate firefighters certified and trained to fight wildland fires alongside full-time county firefighters.

Most of the graduating inmates would have trained in the state’s inmate firefighter program, but AB 109 — California's prison realignment plan — shifted these men to county jails. The L.A.  County sheriff’s and fire departments decided to create their own program and fill its fire camps.

“Sometimes you will make the difference between somebody living and dying. You will make the difference between somebody having a home or not having a home,” L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby told the inmates.  He thanked them for their future service on the county's behalf.

Eight months ago the first group of inmate trainees arrived at Pitchess Detention Center, where the county established a fire training camp. For conditioning, the men hiked three to six miles a day through the hills. Then they took 80 hours of firefighting training that included daily written tests on fire behavior and safety, as well as field exercises. About 60 of the inmates also took culinary classes and gained state certification in safe food handling.

Only inmates convicted of non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual crimes such as theft or drug possession qualify for the program. As part of the deal the county reduces inmates' sentences  upon completion. That was a big incentive for many — at first.

“After a while, I wasn’t concerned about getting the time cuts, I just wanted to be a part of something important. I want to make a difference,” said inmate Richard Ortega, 42.

Ortega’s son and his mother traveled from the San Gabriel Valley to northern L.A. County to see him graduate. Ortega threw his arm around his son, once a fire explorer as a kid and now a heavy equipment operator serving with the U.S. Marines.

“I’m just trying to catch up to him,” Ortega said proudly.  

L.A. County operates five fire camps. Officials hope to fill all the camps with 500 to 700 inmate firefighters trained and ready to respond to wildfires.

“They’re people who have made some mistakes in their lives, but they are trying to give back to the county and earn their way into their freedom,” said L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca.  

Because of their criminal convictions, the inmate firefighters don’t quality to apply for L.A. county firefighting jobs but they could apply for state or federal fire jobs once released.  

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