Inmates prayed, prepared for death in LA wildfire

Inmate firefighter Henry Navarro, with the Mount Gleason Conservation Camp 16, stirs up dust as he walks to a fire truck after eight hours of fighting a wildfire in the Angeles National Forest near Azusa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009. On Aug. 29, the crews had just finished eating a Sunday dinner of salad, turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy when the fire appeared in a drainage area at the southwest edge of camp around 4:45 p.m. Within minutes, the officers decided the blaze had reached a "trigger point." Around 5 p.m., Capt. Tedmund Hall and firefighter specialist Arnaldo Quinones  radioed that they were heading back to the safety zone. They never showed. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Inmate firefighter Henry Navarro, with the Mount Gleason Conservation Camp 16, stirs up dust as he walks to a fire truck after eight hours of fighting a wildfire in the Angeles National Forest near Azusa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009. On Aug. 29, the crews had just finished eating a Sunday dinner of salad, turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy when the fire appeared in a drainage area at the southwest edge of camp around 4:45 p.m. Within minutes, the officers decided the blaze had reached a "trigger point." Around 5 p.m., Capt. Tedmund Hall and firefighter specialist Arnaldo Quinones radioed that they were heading back to the safety zone. They never showed. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Editors Note: This story is based on interviews with three inmates and a corrections officer who survived the destruction of Camp 16.

LOS ANGELES - As he reached the door of the chow hall, Henry Navarro looked to his right and uttered an expletive. Then he looked to his left and spat out an even stronger one.

Many of the inmate firefighters at Mount Gleason Conservation Camp had been training for just this scenario for years. But nothing could have prepared them for the gantlet of fire they must now run.

The chow hall was supposed to be the "safety zone" for the more than five dozen people at the station. But it and every other building in the ridgetop camp were now engulfed in flames.

And their leaders - Capt. Ted Hall and Foreman Arnie Quinones - were somewhere out there in the inferno.

The order was given to make a run for the crew carriers.

As a swamper, essentially the senior inmate, David Clary had a radio and rode up front with the foreman. When everyone was in the small buses, he made a head count.

Meanwhile, the foremen were checking in with each other over the radios. Someone tried calling for Hall.

"Supe 16?" the radio barked.

Silence.

"Supe 16?" the call went out again and again.

The men heard nothing except the pounding of their own hearts and the ferocious roar of seemingly insatiable fire.

___

Mount Gleason, or Camp 16, is located north of Los Angeles, outside the city of Palmdale. A cluster of about a dozen buildings perched at 5,500 feet on a ridge deep in the Angeles National Forest, it is one of six inmate fire camps in Los Angeles County run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Opened in 1979, it is on the site of a former Nike anti-aircraft missile installation, LA-04, one of more than a dozen such batteries built to defend the "City of Angels" from nuclear attack. Visitors can still see the sealed remains of empty missile silos.

Camp 16 housed 105 inmate firefighters and provided six fire crews in a partnership between corrections and the County of Los Angeles Fire Department. The camp's emblem is a snarling wolf, and its members call themselves "the wolfpack."

Capt. Tedmund "Ted" Hall, 47, had been with the fire department 28 years, the last eight of them in these wilderness camps. Firefighter Specialist Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 34, joined in 1998, and had been supervising and training inmates at Camp 16 for nearly four years.

Much of the year, the inmate crews haul sandbags to protect against winter floods, clear recreational trails and perform any other necessary routine maintenance. During fire season, they help clear flammable brush and establish breaks to halt advancing flames.

Normally, inmates are paid up to $3.90 a day for their labor, depending on the position. But prisoners working the fire lines in an emergency receive an additional $1 an hour.

Shortly after the so-called Station Fire began on Aug. 26, about half of the camp's inmates were evacuated. The 55 who remained were trained in wildfire suppression.

But for whatever reason, the U.S. Forest Service ordered the wolfpack to stand down. Banished from the front lines, the men continued to fortify their camp against the fire's inevitable onslaught.

In addition to Hall, Quinones and the inmates, there were three other foremen, two five-person LA County engine companies, two corrections officers, and a visiting facility captain with no firefighting training at the camp that day.

On Aug. 30, the crews had just finished eating a Sunday dinner of salad, turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy when the fire appeared in a drainage area at the southwest edge of camp around 4:45 p.m. Within minutes, the officers decided the blaze had reached a "trigger point."

With a buffer of about 75 feet between the dining hall and the nearest building, it was considered the camp's Alamo. Hall ordered the crews to wait there, and he and Quinones jumped into the "supe truck" - the large, red 4X4 pickup - and raced down to meet the fire.

Firing a flare pistol into the brush below the camp, the two men attempted to set back fires in hopes they would burn down to the main conflagration and deprive it of fuel.

Around 5 p.m., Hall and Quinones radioed that they were heading back to the safety zone. They never showed.

Outside, the smoke had turned broad day into darkest midnight. The panicked inmates watched through the windows as the flames worked their way behind them on both sides.

The LA County officers' quarters - or "BOQ" as the inmates call them - were the first to catch fire. The blaze then flashed across the weightlifting area to the left of the kitchen and began chewing into the roof of the cinderblock dormitory where the inmates slept.

The flames had jumped from the ground to the treetops, what is called a "crown fire." The conflagration was creating its own weather.

What appeared to be little dust devils were swirling everywhere. Clary, 41, looked on in rapt fascination as wood chips spun into the air and ignited.

Inmate Christopher Buttner, 37, saw the flames leap over the top of the chow hall from both sides and meet overhead, their color changing from a wild yellow to a ravenous red.

Their safety zone had become an oven.

The building started to fill with thick, acrid smoke. Then the flames began erupting from beneath the eaves.

By now, Buttner was certain the fire had consumed most of the oxygen outside the building. Some people lay down on the floor to get below the smoke, while others began shaking open their emergency rescue shelters.

Made of a reflective material, these emergency tents are a last resort when a position is about to be overrun. Some firefighters ghoulishly refer to the bags as "the foil shake and bake."

Navarro, 28, who had only been at the camp for two months, began to wonder if they would make it. It looked like hell outside.

He began to pray.

With their captain absent, Crew 5 Foreman Kevin Taylor assumed command. He headed for the door.

"Get ready to leave," he shouted. "I'm going to get the crew carrier."

Miraculously, the fire began to lift slightly. Another foreman, Andrew Cardullo, lined the men up and began marching them outside single file, their shelters tucked under their arms.

Just as the last inmate went through the door, the roof collapsed.

When no one could raise Hall and Quinones, the decision was made to drive around the camp and search for them. When that failed, the crews looked for a safe spot to wait out the firestorm.

They found a place toward the back of the camp that had no buildings and had already been burned over. They parked and waited for the smoke to clear.

Searchers later found Hall's vehicle in a canyon 800 feet below the camp. The men had apparently driven off the road in a lefthand curve and plunged over the side.

The inmates would not say whether it appeared the crash or the fire had killed the men. They also refused to divulge Hall's last transmission, citing the ongoing investigation.

That night, the inmates were taken to the Prado camp in Chino. During the drive, they reflected on the two who were lost.

Clary had worked under Hall and Quinones for two years. Everything he knows about fires and fighting them, he owes to them.

Now, he believes, he owes them his life.

Buttner was angry. He couldn't help thinking that if they had been allowed to stay on the fire lines, none of this would have happened.

When the fire was over, all that remained of Camp 16 was the visitors' bathroom.

Although the Station Fire is the largest in Los Angeles County history, Hall and Quinones are the only fatalities. Hall left behind a wife and two grown sons; Quinones' wife, Loressa, is about to deliver their first child.

At the Chino camp, the prisoners and their keepers talked about their fallen leaders and prayed for their families. Then they did something that guards and inmates don't normally do - they hugged.

Four days later, they were back on the fire lines.

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