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Youth Inmates Taken Off Fire Lines

Two attacks on state fire captains and several escape attempts prompt the suspension of four firefighting camps for juvenile offenders.

August 02, 2003|Hilda Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Two fire captains supervising a firefighting camp for youth inmates were physically assaulted in separate incidents within the last six weeks, prompting officials to shut down the program.

Officials made the decision to suspend four camps in the California Youth Authority program after the assaults as well as several recent escape attempts, said Karen Terrill, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"We are concerned about the safety of our captains and the public," Terrill said.

"We can't tolerate it; we won't tolerate it, and so that's why we called for the stand-down."

The two alleged attackers are being prosecuted by the district attorney's office in Mariposa County, where the incidents took place.

They are currently serving time in an adult corrections institute, said CYA spokeswoman Sara Ludeman.

Some firefighters are growing concerned about youth offenders assigned to fire camps, saying they are increasingly violent and uncooperative, said one fire official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used.

But Ludeman and Terrill said physical attacks are uncommon.

The last such incident happened in 1979.

Thousands of youth offenders have since gone through ward programs without a hitch until recently, Ludeman said.

In June, 18-year-old Jose Corral was cleaning a firetruck when authorities allege that he punched a fire captain near the eye, inflicting a wound that required four stitches.

While returning from a fire assignment earlier this month, 19-year-old Jose Mojarro allegedly punched a fire captain in the mouth, causing minor bruising, officials said.

Four fire camps in rural California communities have been suspended while authorities examine current policies and procedures to determine if they are safe.

About a month and a half ago, two wards walked off the Ben Lomond Youth Conservation Camp in Santa Cruz County and were later apprehended, Ludeman said.

Only inmates near the end of their stay at a CYA institution, and who are cleared by a parole board, can participate in the camps, officials said.

The program has taught firefighting skills and community service work to young inmates since the 1940s, Ludeman said.

The inmates help fight fires, earning $1 a day during most of the year, except during fire season, when they earn $1 an hour.

Last year, the juvenile offenders provided the state with roughly 648,000 hours of public service work, including firefighting and other community service work, Ludeman said.

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