Conservation crew saves $250,000 in flood prevention costs

Members of the Oak Glen Conservation Camp Crew 4 put the finishing touches on their two-week drainage ditch clean up project at March Air Reserve Base, Feb. 10. Keeping the ditches free of debris is crucial for flood control on the base. ( U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kevin Chandler)

Members of the Oak Glen Conservation Camp Crew 4 put the finishing touches on their two-week drainage ditch clean up project at March Air Reserve Base, Feb. 10. Keeping the ditches free of debris is crucial for flood control on the base. ( U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kevin Chandler)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- With Southern California's winter rainy season in full force, clearing the ditch along the south side of the base to prevent flooding is a critical job. Fire Crew 4 from the Oak Glen Conservation Camp was on base for the first half of the month to accomplish this task, saving the Air Force hundreds of thousands of dollars while they were at it.

Unlike the usual work crews on base, the members of this crew are inmates.

Jerry Averett, the fire captain who supervised the crew during their assignment at March, explained that the members of Crew 4 are nonviolent offenders with three years or less remaining on their sentences who are now working to improve the community. He said crew members are required to have exhibited a history of good behavior and go through an extensive screening process before they are admitted to the conservation camp.

Once admitted, the crew members are trained primarily in fire fighting and prevention so they can assist California state fire crews during the summer months. They use hand tools and chainsaws to clear fuels and brush to provide fire breaks in local areas. The work they do is crucial to effectively fight the fires that inevitably start in Southern California. When fire season is over, they put their skills to use in other areas, like flood prevention.

It was this set of skills Bill Kelly, a construction inspector with the 452nd Civil Engineering Squadron, sought when he first contacted the Oak Glen Camp six years ago. He had observed the members of a conservation crew--who are easily identifiable by their orange jumpsuits--working on March Joint Powers Authority property and figured bringing them to the base might be beneficial.

After placing a call to the camp, he learned the crews were a possibility for March, since they can work on any land which is not privately owned. At that time, the base was using a contractor to clear the ditch, which cost $50,000 per year. The crew from Oak Glen could get the same work done for $2,000.

This means that over the last six years, the Oak Glen crews have saved March almost $250,000.

According to Mr. Averett, crews typically work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Each crew member earns between $1.45 and $4 per day, except when working on the fire line, where they receive an additional dollar per hour.

"The crews can really get a lot accomplished," Averett explained. "It surprises most folks how much they can get done in a day."

In the winter, a crew comes out to March, clearing tons of brush and debris from drainage ditches. Mr. Kelly believes that without this annual clean-up, winter rains would flood crucial areas of the base. Indeed, on Jan. 19, yet-to-be-cleared debris in a ditch in the southern part of base collapsed a section of fencing. This ditch was one of the areas the crew cleared during their work last week.

Clearing this area is especially difficult because it is classified as wetland, which means heavy machinery and vehicles cannot be used to aid the removal. Mr. Kelly estimates crews remove two tons of trash and six or seven tons of biodegradable waste each year.

Richard Eunice, base civil engineer, said the situation has benefited both the base and the crew. "It really is a win-win situation, it saves a lot of money and time," he said.

The labor pool at Oak Glen might be in jeopardy, however, if non-violent offenders are released from prison early, as some California state officials have proposed. "It would definitely affect our program," Mr. Averett said. "We would lose quite a number of people."
The crew finished their work on March ARB Feb. 10.