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Fire Crews Make Bad Boys Heroes : Camp Puts Young Criminals to Work Clearing Brush

August 23, 1990|KAREN E. KLEIN | Klein is a regular contributor to The Times

Wade Hamel gives chain saws to teen-age criminals.

And he's proud of it.

Hamel, director of Camp Joseph M. Paige in La Verne, puts young felons and hard-core gang members to work clearing brush to aid Los Angeles County firefighters.

The camp, one of two associated with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, is home to 116 boys ages 16 to 18, most of whom have been convicted of serious crimes--just about everything short of murder.

This summer and fall, with the drought pushing the danger of fire to a critical point, youths from Camp Paige and from Camp Louis Routh, in Tujunga, are on alert 24 hours a day to fight fires all over Los Angeles County. They work side by side with firefighters and adult prison inmates, performing the backbreaking job of clearing tinder-dry brush out of the path of the flames.

"The community feels very angry at juveniles when they hear of them committing crimes," Hamel said. "But when we take these boys out to do fire suppression, the community looks on them as heroes. Probably this is the first time in their lives they've had the opportunity to be looked up to for something real they've done."

The firefighting experience also has been known to spark a little attitude adjustment on the part of the boys.

County firefighter Joe Alvarado tells the story of driving his red crew truck out to the scene of a brush fire in Webb Canyon in June and seeing a sight he never expected.

As he prepared to face the leaping flames, thick black smoke and rain of ashes, Alvarado glanced into the glass-enclosed passenger section of his truck and saw nine juvenile delinquents huddled together in frightened prayer.

Some had not thought twice before of wielding weapons, stealing cars or invading private homes. Now, stripped of their macho veneer by the heat of the flames, these former property-destroyers were protecting the possessions of others.

Authorities allowed interviews with some of the youthful firefighters on the condition that their last names not be used.

One of them, David M., a 17-year-old who landed at Camp Paige after he was caught burglarizing cars and ditching school, worked on the fire lines for 12 hours during the June 28 Webb Canyon fire.

"It's very exhausting," David said. "But it gets your adrenaline going. The day moves by quick."

The boys used chain saws, rakes and hoes to slash through the yucca plants, manzanita bushes and poison oak plants that fuel a fire. The dirt paths, or fire lines, act as breaks to stop a blaze from spreading.

Because they are minors, the boys cannot normally work more than eight hours at a stretch, but in emergencies they are called on to work 12 hours a day.

They continued cutting back chaparral into the night, and the flames gradually receded and the sparks died down. "We give them a lot of responsibility and they kind of rise to the occasion," Alvarado said. "There's really no other choice in a fire situation."

As the night turned into morning, a nearby homeowner came out to survey the damage and express thanks that his home had been saved.

"Once they saw a grateful family there, they were the proudest, happiest kids alive," Alvarado said.

But along the way the youthful offenders faced real danger.

During a fire in late June, a 23-year-old inmate from the Bautista Conservation Camp in Hemet was killed when a 17-member fire crew was overrun by flames. Victor Ferrera was serving time for armed robbery.

Four youths and their fire captain were killed during a Puente Hills fire in September, 1955, probation officials said.

Hamel said there have been no serious incidents involving youths since then, but he added that it is always hazardous on the fire lines, especially for the youths who are specially trained to use chain saws to mow down large brush. All of the boys wear protective gear, carry food, water and special fire tents, and must pass 80 hours of rigorous physical and academic training before they are placed on fire crews.

Hamel said that a selected group of the boys who have been evaluated according to their previous criminal records, their histories of violence and their personal suitability are assigned to operate the chain saws. "After they've been in camp quite a few weeks, we know the boy and how he handles himself, what kind of maturity level he has and what kind of impulse control he has," Hamel said.

In the three years he has been director of Camp Paige, there has not been a violent incident involving the chain saws, or the other sharp, dangerous tools the boys use in firefighting. But Hamel still worries about that possibility.

"I can't say that I'm not apprehensive about it. That's one thing that always weighs on your mind. It's almost like I'm scared to mention it," he said.

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