After the Clayton Fire broke out on Aug. 13, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection scrambled to set up an operating base. The base is known as fire camp and it's like a village.
You'll find a school bus transformed into a medical station and a long row of portable toilets. Generators hum from every side. They provide power for sleeping trailers and an industrial ice maker.
A five-wheel trailer redesigned as a commercial kitchen occupies the heart of fire camp. It's called the MKU, or mobile kitchen unit, and it's staffed with prison inmates.
Mark Montoya was tapped to be the Food Unit Leader for the Clayton Fire in Lake County.It’s Montoya’s job to make sure 2,372 firefighters get fed between shifts on the fire line.
Montoya and a rotating officer from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation oversee a crew of 26 inmates split into two staffing shifts, breakfast and dinner.
You can't miss the inmates working at fire camp. They're a knot of orange amidst a sea of firefighters in blue. This inmate kitchen crew is drawn from Trinity and Sugar Pine conservation camps, part of a state-wide program run jointly by Cal Fire and CDCR.
Montoya leads the way into the dining hall and scans the crowd as dozens of crews quickly finish their meal and head out.
"I’d say I’ve got about 450 people eating right now," says Montoya.
This late breakfast shift constitutes a "lull" in the day.
Montoya knows firsthand what it's like to wait in a long line for a hot meal after working to contain a wildfire.
"There’s a few things that really motivate you at that point," says Montoya. "One is to eat, to get your engine re-stocked and get some sleep and rest so you can be ready to come back and do it again."
A few hours later, the assembly line starts back up all over again for dinner.
As firefighters come off their shift, they change out of their firefighting gear and into their blue dress uniforms. They wash their hands at a row of outdoor sinks and walk up a metal ramp toward the window of the MKU.
Inmates hand them plates of crunchy chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables and biscuits.
As they move through the line, one firefighter asked for an extra biscuit. Another asks how the inmates are doing inside the trailer.
It's nearly 97 degrees outside.
Montoya says this MKU has a good team. "I'm fortunate to have CDCR inmate staff who were cooks while they were out - so they have a culinary background."
Cipriano Valdez is a lead cook with this MKU.
"After serving a thousand, you’re looking out the window to see if more people are coming, you know?" says Valdez. "And yeah, they keep on coming."
The crew estimates they washed and baked 1,100 potatoes for last night's dinner shift.
As inmate kitchen staff, Valdez makes about $1 an hour.
"You could say, in about a week, you could make $200," Valdez says, with a shrug.
He says he made about that much in a day as a truck driver before he was incarcerated.
"But since I am here, I got to make some type of money," Valdez says.
He says the opportunity to earn money was the main thing that drew him to this position.
But Valdez also adds that the experience gives him a chance to see things he'd never see behind prison walls: ranches, mountains, different types of old cars and "regular" people.
As part of the MKU, Valdez has traveled to several different regions in California. Wherever the wildfires break out.
"I feel like I’m not in prison anymore," says Valdez. "It kind-of makes you feel like you’re on the street again. It makes you feel a little bit better."
Correctional officer Oscar "OJ" Smith of CDCR supervises Valdez and his fellow staff on the MKU.
"My primary role is providing security - making sure we don't lose anybody here. It happens rarely," Smith adds. "But it can happen."
Smith also says he's there to assist Cal Fire by making sure meals come out on time "so that firefighters are fed adequately so that they can accomplish their mission of fighting fire."
Smith describes the inmate fire camp program as an opportunity for rehabilitation.
"It provides work training and leadership skills so that they can go out and become productive taxpayers someday," he says.
Back in the dining hall, Battalion Chief Cameron Todd from Murphys says he’s grateful to inmate staff for a hot meal.
Before the mobile kitchen rolled into camp, Todd and his crew confess they ate "something grey" out of a tin after a 16-hour shift on the fire line.
As Todd sees it, inmates are part of the firefighting effort.
"You treat them with courtesy and respect and you thank them for a good meal," says Todd. "They are just like the rest of us. They just want to do a good job, get this fire put out and go home."
In the midst of this fire season there are 11 inmate-run mobile kitchen units serving fire camps up and down the state.
As for Cipriano Valdez, he expects to be paroled later this year.
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