Making a School More Fire Safe

When the students return to classes at Charles Hoffman Elementary School next week, they will notice a big difference on the grounds. Last week Pilot Rock fire crews, under the supervision of Cal Fire, thinned the trees, opening up a path behind the school to the ball field.

Captain Grant Malinowski, in charge of operations for the Pilot Rock crews, said it looked as though the area had not been tackled for five years. The work his crews did, he said, should serve the school well for the next five or six years.

It's Cal Fire forester Glenn Barley who sets the parameters for creating a healthy forest and making an area more fire safe, Malinowski said.

"Then I look at the project and assess the time it will take," he said. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation checks to make sure the area is one suitable for the inmates to work in.

Through the fire camp program, the captain said, the crews do work for federal, state and local governments. "We bill enough to recoup our fuel expenses and the costs of vehicle maintenance," he said.

At Hoffman—and also at Mountain High School and Valley of Enchantment Elementary School, where the crews also worked recently—"we are helping out the school maintenance crew," Malinowski said. "It would take them weeks to do what we accomplished in a day."

He brought two 15-man crews with him as well as a chipper crew.

Some inmates were trimming trees down the hill from the ball field, toward the school. Others were dragging the slash up the hill to the chipper, where the chipper crew fed the branches through the machine.

Malinowski told that crew to spread the chipped materials three inches thick on the hillside behind the ball field. "We have to spread it so it dries out and decomposes," he said.

For some inmates, the captain noted, "this is their first real job. They really appreciate it. It teaches them to show up on time. They gain work and life skills."

All these crew members have been convicted of low-level crimes, he said, and have shown good behavior. Being placed in the camp program is a privilege they do not take lightly. They are at Pilot Rock from two months to five years but serve an average of 2-1/2 years. "That's plenty of time for them to get a lot of training," Malinowski said.

When they parole out of camp, many get jobs with the Forest Service, with hand crews or with fire departments. Their training includes fire suppression as well as forestry skills.

'If we get a fire call," Malinowski said, "that's the priority. First, save lives; then property; then thin trees." If they get called out of county, someone from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation goes with the crew.

When the inmates leave Pilot Rock, the captain added, "they know how to do a good job. They get a sense of working together. They are not just out for themselves. They are stuck together day in and day out, either working on trees or putting out fires."

Malinowski added they gain a sense of self respect and pride in their work.

"They will walk away today thinking, 'We turned a school from a forest to a park.' They are proud of that and feel they are making the school property nice just as they would for their own families."

Looking over at the chipper crew, Malinowski said, "Even without me telling them, they know what to do. They are supervised but they do a good job on their own."

The inmates grease and fuel everything before heading out to the job site.

"When I bring them out here,” Malinowski said, "they're firemen."