April 14th, 2013:


Fire season in California can start at any time, season or not. There was a fairly large one not long ago in Riverside and another one even more recently. Men aren’t the only ones who fight the blazes. I discovered some out-of-the-ordinary firefighters when I wrote a story about  Malibu Conservation Camp 13 some years ago. A film director friend thought the story was so interesting that it would make an exciting movie.


Nestled within the Santa Monica Mountains off a lightly trafficked road in Encinal Canyon is the camp, which housed at that time about 100 women, who were convicted felons serving time for embezzlement, drug use and drug sales. To serve their time there, they are classified as trustworthy; as a minimum security facility, the camp is run on the honor system. It’s not meant to be a vacation; these gals, in their 20s, have to stay in top physical shape to fight the fires they are called out on. Who needs a gym when you have to climb up hilly terrain daily, from 1.2 miles to 2.6 miles, and do it in 25 to 58 minutes? Crews of 14 women inmates stay “on call” 24 hours a day, and they have to respond within five minutes after a fire call is received. This is serious business.

At the time I interviewed the camp commander, and he pointed out the difference between male and female prisoners: “We don’t have the gang affiliation problems. Women get along better; they’re inclined to do a good job with the least amount of problems.” It’s intriguing for me to look back at this story at a time when women are becoming more powerful in the workplace and actually running huge companies. When these female firefighters have served their time, their excellent training qualified them to eventually work with the California Department of Forestry.

For a woman who has to serve time, getting sent to a camp in the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains is a great alternative. It seemed a bit like a summer camp, and all was not work. They had a library, TVs, a hobby-craft program and a lot of support for recovering drug users. Visitors are allowed on holidays and weekends, and those who come to visit enjoy a scenic drive, and good mountain air mixed with moisture from the nearby Pacific Ocean.

On my way back from my interview, I still vividly remember a very large owl in the middle of the empty two-lane road. He was in the midst of devouring something—perhaps a rat or other small animal. I slowed down to appreciate him. He was not intimidated by me in my small car. Moments later he spread his amazingly large wings and flew away into the trees.



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