by Raechel Fittante
photography by Alen Zilic
Although there have been few fires this year due to high humidity, Captain Ray Thompson of the fire suppression Camp Paige has a powerful memory. “Fires in the hills are an extremely large problem,” he notes.
Captain Thompson also has a powerful ally in fighting those hillside fires: the boys at Camp Paige.
What makes Camp Paige unique as a fire camp is that the young men are trained to fight fires and to excel in areas of fire abatement. There are always four active crews running, as well as a two-week training program, which is mainly a conditioning course. New arrivals at the training camp must spend 80 hours in class learning the fundamentals of first aid, the behavior of fires and discipline.
Like a small town movie scene, the fire camp is usually calm. Congregated in chairs around a chalkboard, about 30 young men, ages 16 through 17, listen intently as a fire department instructor leads them through the dynamics of a fire. “He is explaining how once wind gets on a fire, it goes faster — 16 times faster uphill because heat rises,” says Aaron C., a 17 year-old who has been at Camp Paige for only 10 weeks and is already supervising one of the training crews.
The 16 and 17-year-olds serving out their probation time at Camp Paige are placed here in lieu of state level incarceration after being found guilty by the court of California of committing various crimes. Camp Paige is one of 19 residential programs for at-risk youth in Los Angeles County. There are usually about 100 to 120 youth inhabiting Camp Paige at any particular time, though there are a total of 126 beds.
According to Sharon Smith, director at Camp Paige, there is always constant movement in the wards, with youths coming and going, and that each must spend at least an average of nine months at the camp.
One of the worst dangers firemen face on a regular basis is homes burning. From results of a survey taken by Camp Paige suppression camp officials, it was determined that the average value of a house built in the foothills is more than $300,000.
Asked about the Lewis Homes, which are each worth more than a half million dollars being erected near the vicinity of the the fire camp, and Captain Thompson answers that fires are random incidents. “There is so much heat amassed when a fire burns that when it comes to structures burning it’s all about placement. You never really know where a fire is going to start,” he says.
Joe Alvarado, who has been a crew supervisor for the fire camp for more than 10 years, recalls 1988 when more than 13 houses burned in Live Oak Canyon due to a power line falling down. “We are in a good location where we can sometimes see smoke from a fire before a call even gets radioed in,” says Alvarado. “Our crews often work alongside county-employed and state-employed fire fighters,” says Michael Cobas, probation officer at Camp Paige.
Among the many skills learned by crews is how to dig fire breaks into the hills which cut off fuel for the fire by placing a break in the brush. Fuels, such as grass, timber and homes, are classified as carriers of fires.
Smith sees the training as “positive because the boys not only learn teamwork, but they’re built up physically and mentally; they learn discipline, and they learn regimentation.” She continues, jokingly, “They are suddenly in a truck with a fireman, instead of running away from a foreman.”
An average day for the boys begins at 6:30 a.m. Half of the boys go to school, while the other half work on flood control or filling sandbags. The next day the boys switch. Often, the boys and the officers spend much time hiking the various trails up the mountain, and practicing the correct ways to hold fire tools and to enter and exit a helicopter.
“I believe that the fire camp is the best kids can get in a detention center,” says Alvarado, who boasts that the camp trains approximately 350 kids a year for basic fire fighting knowledge. “It gives them a chance to give back to the communities they were taken out of.”
Cobas explains that the program is positive for the boys because firemen have good standing in most communities. “This may be the only time in their lives that the boys get this type of feedback,” he explains.
The small building that serves as a high school is shared by boys from Camp Afflerbaugh, the probation camp just on the other side of the parking lot outside Camp Paige. The boys from the two camps do not intermix in the classroom or outside. “We keep the two camps apart from one another,” says Terry Buggs, who has been a probation officer for L.A. County for the past five years. “We have a hard enough time keeping the boys in line who may be from rival gangs out on the street, within our own camp.”
Either camp is no place for a picnic, however. The boys sleep in a basic recreation area, much like a dormitory, but with a military school theme. Lined up all around the room are 120 single wrought iron beds with grey flannel blankets. It is not too comfortable, and there is nothing even remotely private. In the center of the room is an area where two probation officers sit, monitoring the boys’ behavior 24 hours a day. The eating facility is no different. Metal tables with attached stools sit upon the cement floors of the dining hall. “It is a rather crude method of existence,” says Cobas.
He describes a transition from the first day in the fire abatement program to the first time one of the boys assists in a abating a fire. “When they get to a fire and help put it out, they realize that it is dangerous out there — the look on their faces; you can see it in their eyes,” says Cobas. “It is instant maturity. It teaches them a good work ethic. In a place one can possibly die, the boys are forced to work together.”
Across the way at Camp Afflerbaugh, work crews encompass the primary existence of the 12 to 19-year-old boys. Instead of fighting fires, they go in groups to various communities and clean up the streets.
One of the crews that Richard Fort, supervisor at Camp Afflerbaugh, is most proud of is the move crew. “Five days a week, the move crew goes to El Camino Elementary school in Pomona and helps severely mentally and physically retarded kids,” says Fort. “It is moving to see these big gang kids helping disabled kids. It is quite a partnership between two disparate elements of society that usually don’t get together.”
In terms of setup, the two camps are physically identical, except for the absence of a fire department at Camp Afflerbaugh. Education is perhaps the most important thing that the probation officers stress for their boys who, on average, have no more than second to third grade educational skills.
Fort says that first the boys learn discipline. “We force kids from different gangs to interact,” he says, nodding seriously in a manner that is well-known by his boys. “Some kids like the enforced order because in some senses it is an upgrade just to have clean sheets and three meals a day, which is what most of them do not get at home. Some resist with defiance, but as a probation officer, you learn to be direct.”