When it comes to wildfires, the safest area to live locally in the near future may be near Las Virgenes Road. Up to 50 young people at a time are expected to be living and training there to join the fire service later this year.
Located a few miles outside Malibu city limits, Camp David Gonzales is now slated by LA County to become a residential job training center for the fire service. The site had served for decades as a residential juvenile detention center up until about three years ago, when it was essentially mothballed due to a lack of incarcerated youth.
Over the past few years, LA County has taken a number of steps toward building a “Care First, Jails Last” justice system by establishing a number of strong programs to help “justice-involved populations.” Just this past week, the “Justice, Care and Opportunities Department” was created as the umbrella for all of these programs, including the one at Camp Gonzales.
Malibu’s representative on the LA County Board of Supervisors, Sheila Kuehl, along with Supervisor Hilda Solis, has been behind the push to transform the camp into a job training facility.
In a recent statement, Kuehl explained that California relies on prison labor to fight the state’s wildfires; by asking incarcerated people “to commit to a dangerous public service job while being paid very little for their arduous labor.”
Ironically, once these experienced firefighters were released from prison, they were unable to get jobs working in fire service because they had criminal records – meaning that all their training and experience went to waste, along with a chance for gainful employment in fire service.
The state and county have been trying to remedy that situation since the Woolsey and Camp Fires in 2018, as well as other large wildfires; and an ongoing shortage of firefighters in the state.
In 2020, state Assembly Bill 2147 passed, which expunges the criminal records of prison firefighters upon release from prison, allowing them to apply for jobs in fire service.
Last September, the ‘Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative’ and its Fire Camp Steering Committee made a report to the county Board.
Their program, called the LA Training Center (LATC), would be piloted at Camp David Gonzales and serve up to 50 transition-aged youth – both justice and non-justice involved. State parolees older than 25 and AB 109 probationers (current non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offenders) could also be accepted into the program if space and resources allow.
Steering Committee members continue to work out the details – employment pathways, training curriculum, communications and outreach, recruitment, rehabilitation, and infrastructure. The goal is to open the LATC to participants in 2022.
The report also detailed county efforts to link Fire Camp participants to existing employment opportunities; the Career Development Intern program; the ‘Outreach, Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion (CORDI) Unit’; the ‘Preparing LA for County Employment’ program; and the ‘Worker Education and Resource Center.’
On January 25, the Board approved Kuehl’s joint motion with Supervisor Solis to keep moving the project forward. Various county departments were directed to create construction and renovation plans for Camp Gonzales; as well as come back with budget numbers, funding options, career paths for program graduates, lists of possible eligible participants, etc.
“As we continue to experience more severe wildfire seasons, it’s essential to have dedicated and trained personnel to prevent and fight our wildfires,” Kuehl stated. “Creating a reentry job training program will help formerly incarcerated young people ages 18-25 to secure quality employment in the fire service, and help reduce recidivism.”