Rare Honors This Weekend for Inmate Firefighters Killed on the Job

Matthew Beck, an inmate firefighter killed on the job on May 24, 2017, with his then-newborn son. ("Help Bring Matthew Beck Home" GoFundMe Page)

Three California prison firefighters were killed on the job in the last 17 months.

Matthew Beck, Frank Anaya and Anthony Colacino died while working or training as one of thousands of inmate firefighters who help the state battle wildfires and protect prison facilities from oncoming flames.

But the California Firefighters Memorial has no plans to honor them, its organizers say, because they don't do the same work as traditional crews on the front lines of the state's wildfires.

This weekend, though, Beck and Anaya's name will be added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Maryland. The U.S. Forest Service plans to honor them and eight other firefighters who died in the line of duty in California last year.

They include Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson, who was killed last December in the Thomas Fire in Ventura County — among 123 firefighters who will be remembered at a national service at the National Fire Academy in Maryland on Sunday.

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For Karen Williams, Beck's mother, this weekend will be a bright spot in what's been a very tough life since her son's death.

"There are so many things about this that I'm upset about," Williams said in an interview.

Prisoners Who Help Cal Fire

Inmate firefighters have become integral to the state's battles against wildfires.

For example, state prison officials have emphasized that thousands of prison firefighters helped California battle some of the largest wildfires on record this summer and last fall.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which runs the inmate firefighting program, says it saves the state $100 million a year.

The prisoners are paid an average of $2 a day when they're in fire camps and an additional $1 an hour when assigned to an active fire, according to CDCR.

And, corrections officials note that injuries to inmate firefighters are rare.

But the recent deaths have prompted concern from criminal justice advocates who've been critical of the program for years.

"Prisoners are a uniquely vulnerable population of potential workers," said David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

Inmate firefighters are not allowed to unionize and they lack some job protections, Fathi points out.

"They are simply left unprotected compared to people on the outside who are doing similar work," he said.

Matthew Beck Was Trying to Turn His Life Around

Supporters of the program say the work that inmate firefighters do during their sentence can help them stay out of prison.

Williams, Beck's mom, said her son was trying to do just that.

As a child Beck was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety, according to Williams. He later began self-medicating with drugs.

"Matthew was a heroin addict," Williams said.

Beck spent years on and off in drug treatment facilities and county lockups after several arrests, including one assault charge, she said.

On May 30, 2014, he pleaded no contest to one count of second-degree burglary and was sentenced to six years in state prison.

He served time at the Sierra Conservation Center in Tuolumne County and Ironwood State Prison in Riverside County.

It was at Ironwood that Beck wanted to change.

"He said he wanted to get out of there. He wanted to turn his life around. He really wanted to try to get into the firefighting program," Williams said from her home in Culver City, with her 5-year-old grandson in the background.

Beck trained at the Antelope Conservation Camp in Susanville and was sent to the Alder Conservation Camp in Klamath, spending a total of six months in the inmate firefighting program.

"It gave him a sense of purpose," Williams said.

While in the program, Beck called his family regularly.

"He told his son, his daddy was a hero," she said.

Large Old Tree Falls, Kills Prison Firefighter

On May 24, 2017, a 3,000-pound tree fell on Beck, 26 at the time, as he was clearing brush in the community of Orleans in the Six Rivers National Forest.

Cal Fire's preliminary review of the incident — known as a "green sheet" — found that a 105-year-old Douglas fir tipped over, struck Beck in the head and he fell into a ditch.

State fire officials said that Beck could not hear a Cal Fire captain yell for him to get out of the way because of the sound of chainsaws.

The green sheet also said that the radio used by the supervisor of Beck's crew was unable to connect with emergency officials in the moments after the tree fell. And it pointed out that the 105-year-old tree was noticed by fire officials before the incident.

Beck died at the scene of blunt-force trauma to his head and trunk, according to an autopsy by the Humboldt County Coroner's Office.

"The branch which had struck the decedent was of considerable size," the autopsy report states.

California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) launched an investigation into Beck's death. Four months later the agency cleared Cal Fire and CDCR of wrongdoing in the incident and declined to issue any citations.

"The tree falling was not related to the work," said Cal/OSHA spokesman Frank Polizzi.

After Inmate Firefighter Dies, His Family Suffers

Beck had been slated to be released from prison five months after the time of the accident.

Williams said she had adopted her grandson, Wesley, with the assumption that Beck would return that October — he would have been integral in raising the boy and be one of the family's breadwinners.

"I totally counted on my son helping me with his son," Williams said. "At the very least, having an extra person available so I could run errands, having a male figure in my grandson's life," she said.

"It's hard. Worth every moment, but still very hard."

Williams said she had a tough time working out logistics to get Beck's body and learned only recently that she could gain some workers' compensation from her son's death. But she's having to battle bureaucratic roadblocks to get benefits.

Beck's name was not on his son's birth certificate because he was in jail when the child was born, according to Williams, which is making it difficult to recoup any money.

And, she doesn't understand why the organization that honors fallen firefighters has decided not to do so for her son.

The California Fire Foundation

State officials and firefighting advocates say they value the work inmates do, but emphasize that work is not the same as the job staff firefighters do.

The California Fire Foundation provides emotional and financial help to families of fallen firefighters but not to the relatives of inmate firefighters.

"Though the work of inmate fire crews is honored and respected by firefighters, the members of these crews did not make such a commitment, except as part of paying their debt for the commission of a crime," said Carroll Wills, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

"Additionally, inmate fire crews are not front line firefighters. Their work is entirely conducted behind the fire lines," Wills said in an emailed statement.

"Their role is comparable to that of some California Conservation Corps crews, who similarly would not qualify for inclusion on a memorial intended to honor those who have fallen on the front lines," she said.

The national memorial, though, has honored several fallen inmate firefighters in the last eight years.

For Beck's mom, it was a pleasant surprise to hear her son would be honored by the group.

"They are flying us out," Williams said. "Firefighters are picking us up from the airport and taking us to the hotel. They have been very kind."