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Wards Shift Course of Fires -- and Their Lives

As members of an elite crew, female youth offenders from Ventura County prison knock down brush and build a future.

October 03, 2005|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Crystal Curtis is gripping a chain saw and slicing through brush like a Benihana chef dazzling the lunch crowd. The 19-year-old's face is slicked with sweat and smudged with dirt. Nickel-size bug bites glow red on her body as insects rise from the chaparral being cleared to curb fire danger.

There was a time when Curtis was always well put together, her makeup and clothing arranged just so. But that was when she was on the outside, before she was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and before she joined the elite firefighting crew at the juvenile prison near Camarillo and learned to knock down blazes with her bare hands and some rudimentary tools.

Curtis belongs to the nation's only fire camp for teenage and young female inmates. For a dollar an hour, she and 13 others serving time for robbery, kidnapping and carjacking travel the state helping to cut fire lines and stop infernos from spreading.

Members of Crew 6 from the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility used axes, chain saws and hoes to beat back flames threatening homes near Moorpark College last week as wildfires scorched the area.

Before the big blazes erupted, they had spent weeks clearing brush from vulnerable hillsides, a task officials later credited with saving countless homes.

It's tough work. After the hardest days, the pretty and soft-spoken Curtis barely recognizes the person staring back from the mirror, she says. But that's not altogether bad.

"I think I changed a lot since I've come here," said Curtis, who is due to complete a three-year sentence next summer.

"I've learned to look at the bigger picture, rather than just the struggle," she said. "After a fire is out, there's nothing like sitting back and looking at what you've accomplished. It's amazing what we are able to do."

Statewide, about 4,000 inmates work on fire crews operated jointly by the Department of Corrections and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. They make up nearly 200 crews spread among 39 camps across the state.

California inmates have been trained to put out fires since about World War II, but it wasn't until the late 1980s that female inmates were allowed to do that work. Today, there are more than 200 female inmate firefighters. Most are adult offenders, stationed at two camps in San Diego County.

The fire camp near Camarillo is the newest in California. Opened in 1990, it draws from the adjacent juvenile prison, the only one in California for female youthful offenders. The prison's nearly 200 wards, who committed their crimes as juveniles, range in age from 14 to 25. The camp emphasizes rehabilitation through schooling, counseling and work programs, including construction and dog grooming.

The fire-crew jobs are the most coveted and hardest to land. Wards must establish a record of exemplary behavior and have no history of escapes. Certain serious crimes -- sexual assault, arson and murder -- disqualify inmates from applying.

They also have to demonstrate physical fitness and pass a 64-hour fire safety and suppression course. But once they're in, camp supervisors say, the wards become part of a hand crew that is as good as any in the state.

"They can put out just as much production as the guys, if not more," said Capt. Dwayne Johnson, who oversees the prison's treatment programs. "A lot of these girls have never worked hard in their lives. But you can see the change in them as they rise to the challenge."

They join the fire crew for different reasons. Some sign on because of the privileges, such as care packages from home or extra kitchen rations when on fire duty. Generally, because the wards are top-notch and taking part in an honors program, they earn time off their sentences at a faster rate than the other inmates.

Other reasons are harder to pin down. There's respect that comes with working on the crew, and admiration from fellow wards and prison staff for doing a tough job. There's praise from the community whenever the crew beats back a fire; a public pat on the back for a group more accustomed to getting knocked around.

But mostly there's the ability every day to break away for a few hours, to leave behind the guards, the razor wire and the monotony of being told what to do and when to do it.

"I wouldn't trade this experience for anything," said crew leader Claire Bomberry, 19, who is nearing the end of a three-year sentence for carjacking, robbery, burglary and assault with a deadly weapon. "This is as close to free as you can be and still be locked behind a fence."

Against long odds, some turn the experience into a career. It took Samantha Nguyen 3 1/2 years to get on the fire crew after she landed at the juvenile prison in 1999. Born in Vietnam and raised in San Jose, Nguyen was a gang member and frequent runaway as a teen. And when she ran, it was always with a bad crowd. Convicted of robbery, she was sent to the prison when she was 17.

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