La Verne Magazine
"La Verne's Borders: North, South, East and West"
At High Risk:
Breaking the Fire Trail at Camp Paige
by Raechel Fittante
photography by Alen Zilic
Fueling the fire that leads to rehabilitation, Jim Jacobs, instructor,
lectures on combustibles to a group of uniformed boys at Camp Paige. The
program includes two weeks of intense physical training and 80 hours of
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."
Dousing delinquency with education, a Camp Paige employee instructs a
crew on the importance of fast response and the workings of a fire hose.
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,"
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."
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