Prisoners of lug

Women inmates integral in removal of diseased Torrey pines in Del Mar

At the edge of Del Mar posh — the narrow lanes above Carmel Valley Road that are lined with multi-story houses built for the size and the views — the Cal Fire–led crew of women inmates finish their lunch and get ready to climb uphill into the reaches of the Torrey Pines Reserve Extension. Their orange pants and vests marked CDCR and the chainsaws and wheelbarrows hint at the hard work ahead.

Torrey Pines State Beach and Reserve

12600 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla

They scale the sandy trails up to the ridges to remove Torrey pine trees that have become infested with bark beetles; then they haul all the waste downhill to keep the infestation from spreading to other trees. When the work at the extension and the main park is finished, they will have removed about 100 of the 4600 rare trees.

"We wouldn't be able to do this without them," says California State Parks restoration specialist Stephen Scatolini, watching the crew from below while he works on the brush at the perimeter. "The trees we have to take out are the big, thick trees that take a long time to die. You need a crew that can work together really well to drop those trees safely and get them out without spreading the bugs.”

"If we can thin out the reservoir trees, the ones that are nearly dead where the larvae is maturing, we can knock the population down," says State Parks environmental scientist and supervisor Darren Smith. "We're moving the logs out of the area with as little disturbance as possible and chipping them up far away from any trees that are vulnerable."

Logs on skyline

The biggest logs are flying down the steep hills on skylines. Others are coming down in pieces, passed from gloved hand to gloved hand along chains of the orange-clad women or in wheelbarrows.

The clearing of infested trees at Torrey Pines began at the end of December, with crews from the California Department of Corrections' Rainbow Conservation Camp #2. The camp was founded in 1946, the first camp in California where Cal Fire shared space and training with a carefully selected and trained group of state-prison inmates who deployed to fight fires, clear brush, and work on state and county park land projects. The Rainbow camp made history again when it became an all-female camp in 1983, camp commander Lt. Harriett Woods said.

"It's a very rigorous training — we have a six-week program that includes physical fitness, fire suppression, and emergency response," according to Woods. "Fire suppression is our primary mission but they also are called out for emergencies like flooding, and for brush clearing and weed abatement, for example."

The women who make the crews are screened before they arrive, she said.

"They are minimum custody — lower offenders and are more trustworthy and trusted. For a lot of the women, this is the first time they have been trained and supported and are working for an hourly wage."

Women on the crews are paid less than $1.50 an hour and often send the money home, she said.

"They can receive a useful job reference and they know they can apply to Cal Fire — it has actually happened that Cal Fire has hired our crew members," Woods said. "They come away with a skill set that will help them transition when they're released."

At Torrey Pines, the crews are cutting and hauling out trees that are between 10 and 30 inches in diameter, Cal Fire captain Mitch Hubbard said.

"The trees weigh tons," Hubbard said. "We've already filled four or five 40-yard dumpsters with bug-infested pines."

"We live together, we eat together, we work together, we're like a family," one inmate said. "It can get tricky out here and we look out for each other."

Told how much her work is appreciated, one woman shrugs. "I feel like I'm giving back for what I did," she says.

Farther up the line, the women form a human chain and pass bulky brush hand-to-hand down to the bottom of the hill while chainsaws scream away. The work will continue into February, when the crews will go to work around the lodge in the main park.

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