They sleep in open cots in the field, sometimes using pieces of cardboard to shield their eyes from the sun. They earn 45 cents an hour, cutting trees and clearing brush.
They labor up to 10 hours amidst eye-watering smoke. It's not unknown for logistical four-ups to strand them miles from camp with only their feet for transportation.
They are the forgotten men of California's forest firefighters, but most of them are happy to be here.
"It's better than the alternative," said Doug Edwards, as he finished a big breakfast after a night on the fire line.
Edwards is a tall 28-year-old computer programmer with a wife and two children in Los Angeles more than 300 miles away. He also is a convicted burglar.The alternative for him and the 14 other orange-shirted members of his firefighting crew is a California prison.
"There's more freedom and more money in the camps," says Edwards, as he prepared to bed down for the day on a cot and paper sleeping bag issued each prisoner by state forestry officials. Edwards is a "swamper," responsible for looking after the tools and equipment of firefighters. he talks slowly, observing with a smile that he has "all the time in the world until October," when he is scheduled to be released from prison.
There are 90 prisoners at Rana, a makeshift camp on the northeastern plank of the Marble Cone fire some 20 miles from Carmel. They are paret of a force of 900 adult inmates and 350 youth offenders deployed along various California firelines.
Most of the prisoners at Rana have been convicted of narcotics offenses or of property-related crime aimed at paying for a narcotic habit.
They are men like Ronnie Villa, a 35-year-old welder who says he has spent the last dozen years in and out of prison. Villa, serving a team for heroin possession now is working as a chainsaw operator.
Villa likes firefighting because "you get to travel and make a little bit of money." He says that time passes more quickly at fire camps than behind bars.
The chief benefit of the fire camps is freedom, or the illusion of it.
Corrections Department officers, one to every 15 prisoners crew, carry no firearms. Neither do the two supervising officers who oversee each half dozen crews.
"Since we don't carry guns, no guns can be taken away from us by the prisoners," says Lt. Mansel McNichols, a cheerful Corrections Department officer who usually is based near San Diego.
Weapons are issued only for pursuit of escapees, a relatively rare occurence at the fire camp. This is partly because the prisoners chosen for the camps are low escape risks and partly because the camps are in remote locations. Prisoners are distinguished from other firefighters, who wear yellow clothing, only by the orange color of their fire-retardant shirts.
Corrections officials value the freedom of the fire camps as much as the prisoners.
Recalling the days when he was a guard in a walled California prison, McNichols says - "In a prison, the pressures are there when you walk in. I don't feel any pressure here. I love it."
The other benefit at Rana is the high quality and quantity of the food.
Prisoners eat the same fare as everyone. This morning the night crews yone. This morning the night crews coming in could choose from eggs cooked to order plus sausages, bacon, hash browns, candy, pastries and seven kinds of fruit - cantaloupe, bananas, grapes, plums, peaches, apples and oranges. The food is properly described by one California Forestry Department official as "better than many people at the camp, and I'm not talking about the prisoners, could afford to buy at home."
Rana, which has fed more than 1,000 people a day during the two weeks of its existence, is a sprawling, equipment-clogged encampment with an entrance marked by a cardboard box. It is like an Army camp - an Army camp in a good war where there is danger and excitement but no one is getting killed.
It also is a coed camp, because young women now perform a wide variety of jobs in the U.S. Forestry Service and are beginning to find jobs in the California Forestry Department as well. There is socializing and make-shift entertainment in the evenings. A sign in the U.S. Forest Service section of the camp says, "Bob Hope and Company to Tour Fire Camps This Christmas."
Rana also features the chief complaints of military service - boredom and fatigue.
Coordinating firefighters is as difficult as coordinating soldiers and there is much "hurry up and wait" time spent lying under trucks on dusty hillsides while some remote figure in authority waits for just the right moment to touchoff a backfire.
"It's a job, like any other job," says John Nemeth, a 21-year-old Hawaiian who is serving a manslaughter term. "After a while the hours really get to you."
On one day this week a busload of California Youth Authority inmates from a camp near Santa Cruz spent the entire day waiting on a succession of hillsides for the order to touch off a backfire. The order never came. The humidity increased so much that the backfire would not burn properly.
It is a long, boring day for everyone but especially for the prisoners, some of whom are highly conscious that they are waiting out the weather alongside men who are making 10 to 20 times as much as they do.
Corrections officers, who get heavy overtime that can add $4,000 or more to their annual base pay of $17,000, frequently regard the prisoners as underpaid. On an actual fireline, McNichols feels, a prisoner should be paid the same as any other firefighter.
Off the firelines, prisoners and forestry employees enjoy a relaxed camaraderie.Some of the firefighters assigned to Rana are sad that the camp is now being demobilzed after only two weeks of existence.
"They work really hard on the line but it's like a carnival in camp," says Charles J. Crail, a veteran U.S. Forest Service official who usually supervises recreation at the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. "I've kind of enjoyed this fire. It broke the monotony. We don't have big fires like this back in Kentucky, and the largest blaze I've been on before was a 1,700-acre fire in West Virginia. It doesn't compare."