At the bottom of a dirt path off Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad, just around the bend from a bustling Costco, 13 women in orange jump suits prepare for an afternoon of clearing brush and litter.

“This a typical day when we’re not fighting fires,” said Capt. Jon Heggie of Cal Fire. “They all say they want to be here. But who wants to be in prison?”

For the next 3 ½ hours, Heggie’s crew of inmates from Rainbow Conservation Camp, a military-style barracks that houses low-risk offenders, will clear a path through a flammable habitat home to snakes, scorpions, bees and sometimes an endangered bird species called the Least Bell’s Vireo.

Their efforts will help make it easier for the Vallecitos Water District to access sewage pipes in case of a line break. More importantly, they’ll have a place to hunker down if they have to come back to combat a wildfire.

Rainbow Camp’s services are in high demand, but it has been down a crew for two years. Heggie sees this as an unfortunate consequence of the state’s Public Safety Realignment Act, a 2011 law passed in response to a federal court order requiring the state to free up space in its overcrowded prisons. The state opted to send low-risk offenders to county facilities to serve out their sentences, but some counties want inmates to remain in state custody.

San Diego County and the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will soon finalize a contract that would allow the county to send eligible inmates to one of four conservations camps stationed in remote locations around the area instead of keeping them in county prisons.

Here’s an interactive look at the location of San Diego County’s conservation camps:

Counterintuitive as it may seem for counties to send inmates back to state-run conservation camps after the state has been ordered to unclog the prisons, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously endorsed the plan because they believe the camps are critical to the region’s safety.

“They’re vital for our backcountry fire-fighting efforts,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “They really provide the muscle and the boots on the ground.”

With the growing threat of wildfires spreading in Santa Ana winds this fall, Jacob said there is an urgent need to send as many eligible county inmates to the camps as possible.

“Protecting lives and property from the kind of wildfires plaguing California this year is a top priority for the state,” said Deborah Hoffman, a spokesperson for the state corrections department. “We are committed to working with counties to ensure we have adequate resources to fully staff our fire camps now and in the future.”

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Here’s a satellite view of Rainbow Camp:

View Larger Map

In exchange for military-style living conditions that afford more freedom — and better food — than a traditional prison, Rainbow camp’s four crews perform difficult, sometimes dangerous, work.

“It’s a good trade,” said Ashley Bozeman, who spent five months at the California Institute for Women in Chino before she came to Rainbow to serve out the remainder of her robbery sentence. “A lot of people wish they could be here instead.”

Bozeman, who is set to be released in August 2016, was one of 24 women from Rainbow who traveled to Yosemite National Park in late August to help contain the Rim Fire that has incinerated 371 square miles of land.

“The fire was out of control,” said Kimberly Willard, an inmate crew leader who has lived at Rainbow for 16 months.

Willard said she recalls flames crowning over trees and embers floating in the wind. The experience was scary, but the gratitude of the communities she helped protect made her feel that she was giving back, she said.

Willard said Rainbow Camp has given her time to reflect on the drug-possession charge that landed her in prison.

When they’re not responding to emergencies or helping to prevent them, the women of Rainbow Camp try to pull their lives back together in the structured environment that Lt. Raymond Villa, a state corrections officer who supervises the inmates, has helped create.

Clean jumpsuits and red coolers are stored in numbered cubbies, and most of their belongings must fit in bedside lockers with 6 cubic feet of room.  Support groups are available each night, allowing them to reflect on their past and seek counseling for addiction. And if they want to, they can earn a GED or take courses through Palo Verde College’s distance-learning program.

Every weekend and four holidays each year, the women can invite visitors to the camp. Families and friends often bring in food to barbecue in the picnic area — a respite from prison life that is not available in barred facilities, said Villa.

“If you have to do time, it’s probably the best place to do it,” Villa said.

Founded in October 1946 as a facility for male prisoners, Rainbow is the oldest conservation camp still operating in the state. It was the first to be collaboratively managed by the state corrections department and Cal Fire, and it became the first women’s prison camp in 1983.

To be eligible to serve time in one of the 43 conservation camps statewide, inmates must be considered low risk. No life sentences. No sexual offenses. And, of course, no arson convictions.

On a case-by-case basis, the corrections department admits inmates who have been convicted of violent crimes that do not rise to the level of rape, kidnapping or murder, like robbery and carjacking.

To work on the fire crews, inmates must be fit enough for “vigorous activity.” The camps also house inmates who support the crews by cleaning the barracks, folding laundry and ordering food.

“We get very few complaints from inmates in fire camps,” said Renee Hansen, executive director of the state Correctional Rehabilitation Oversight Board. “They like the work.”

A few of the women from Rainbow camp have gone on to fire-fighting jobs with Cal Fire or the U.S. Forest Service, said Villa, but getting on the right path after prison can be a struggle.

Some of them come back to Rainbow Camp for other offenses, Villa said.

“You have to provide good positive reinforcement and counsel them here to diffuse problems,” Villa said. “You can’t just lock them in a cell.”

Villa said he often gets calls months later from women who have left, just to say they’re OK. For Villa, this is a sign that he has helped them in some way.

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The mug shots and abridged life stories of Heggie’s crew are printed on laminated cards that he keeps in a red pouch.

Who they are. How they got here. How to find them if they try to escape.

Heggie says he doesn’t talk to them about their crimes because he doesn’t want them to feel like they’re being judged.

“They are my employees and I treat them as such,” he said. “Till they act like inmates.”

Although the conditions in the camps are better than in other state prison facilities, power struggles among inmates still exist, Heggie said. When they get out of line, he is mindful of how much they have suffered. Like Villa, Heggie said he’s careful with his words.

“You don’t want to remind them of all the men in their lives that have failed them,” Heggie said. “I can’t be the next guy to tell them they’re worthless.”

Heggie’s aim is to give the women the strength and the skills they need to survive when they return to the world outside of the camps.

“This is safe,” he said. “They know when their next meal is coming.”

Joel Hoffmann was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the...

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