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Former sixth-grade camp site in Pauma Valley recast as Cal Fire base for hand crews

A former sixth-grade camp site in Pauma Valley has been turned into a base camp and training center for seasonal Cal Fire firefighters who work on hand crews, officials said.

The Fox Fire Center will occupy the 20-acre site located on the south side of Palomar Mountain off state Route 76. It eventually could house four to six hand crews made up of paid seasonal firefighters, said Cal Fire Capt. Neil Czapinski. On-duty crews will live and train at the base, which has eight dorms.

Hand crews use chainsaws, shovels, axes and other tools to build fire lines by removing vegetation from the path of advancing flames. Each crew is made up of around 40 firefighters. Cal Fire has been trying to hire more seasonal firefighters to work as hand crews as the inmate firefighting pool dwindles.

The Camp Fox site, which served for years as one of the region’s camps for sixth-grade students until it closed in 2010, was owned by San Diego County but leased to the county Office of Education in 1974. The agency then bought the site in 1977 for $1.

The sales agreement included a provision that Camp Fox could revert to the county if the premises’ uses changed, said Music Watson, chief of staff for the county Office of Education.

Since 2011, the site has been available for rental use.

When Cal Fire became interested in the site for firefighting purposes, education officials worked to arrange a sublease until the official property transfer takes place. “Having Cal Fire lease and then take residence of the property has already saved us a great deal of time and money, so it’s a win-win,” Watson said.

The county Office of Education continues to operate a sixth-grade camp at the Cuyamaca Outdoor School, which has been renovated and can serve up to 12,000 students a year. Another camp owned by the county Office of Education at Palomar Mountain served as a sixth-grade camp site exclusively for San Diego Unified School District students from 1983 until 2010. Since 2011, that camp also has been used as a rental.

“We’ve actually been working on this with the county for more than two years. Once it was determined that (the San Diego County Office of Education) could give the land back to the county, we started working with the assessor’s office to determine the upgrades… paid for during our time of stewardship,” Watson said. She said the county Office of Education will receive a settlement for the upgrades.

Cal Fire is hiring seasonal firefighters for hand crews as staffing from a state prison inmate firefighter program falls.

The state has used inmates to help battle wildfires since the 1940s, with the first permanent fire camp established in Rainbow in 1946. The Rainbow site no longer is used for inmate firefighters and last year was converted to a fire center housing seasonal firefighter hand crews. There are still two inmate fire camps in San Diego County — La Cima and Puerta La Cruz. The McCain fire camp has reverted to private use.

“Boots on the ground is what puts fires out. You have to put lines around fires,” Czapinski said.

County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who represents North County, wrote a letter last month supporting the use of the property by Cal Fire.

Cal Fire’s use of Camp Fox will benefit residents in “our most vulnerable communities through prescribed fire burning, brush clearing for defensible space and fuel reduction conducted as hands-on vegetation management training,” Desmond wrote.

He said the move would advance fire protection readiness and said the state would be making improvements to the property, investing resources to clear overgrown vegetation and update aging buildings.

“This is an exciting win for the county and a great opportunity to further support wildland fire suppression in the back country,” Desmond said in a statement.



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