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What's Next For Incarcerated Firefighters in California?

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Inmate firefighters battle the Ferguson fire in Jerseydale, California, on July 22, 2018.  (NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Fire season in California has been particularly devastating this year. Some of the biggest wildfires the state has ever seen raged across the state and almost 4.2 million acres burned.

Among the firefighters battling to keep our communities safe are state prisoners, which prompted Bay Curious listener Brittany Powers to ask this question: “Why are prisoners fighting California wildfires [paid so little] and why are they unable to get jobs in this field after they’ve served their sentences?”

Brittany’s question won our September voting round, right around the time news was breaking that the state’s wildfire response was hampered this year by a lack of inmate firefighters. As COVID-19 swept through the prison system, Gov. Gavin Newsom released many low-level offenders early, including some of the firefighters. Suddenly, it was more obvious than ever just how important this workforce is to California’s wildland firefighting capacity.

While crucial, the prison firefighting program has long been criticized for paying low wages and providing few job opportunities for people upon release.

The History of Fire Camps

The inmate firefighter program first started in 1915, but it was during World War II — when civilian firefighters were fighting in the war — that the program really got going. Inmate firefighters took care of fire emergencies during the war. Since then, California has maintained inmate fire camps, mostly in the mountains near where fires are likely to break out. The incarcerated firefighters live at those camps year-round, ready to respond.

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Inmate firefighters are paid $2 to $5 per day, and they get an extra dollar per hour when they’re actively working at a fire. While this is much less than entry-level professional firefighters make, it’s still the highest paid job in the prison system, says a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It’s also a desirable and competitive job to get.

Only people who the state deems a low safety risk are eligible, and everyone must pass a series of physical fitness tests and be trained. Once a person steps foot in fire camp, their remaining sentence is reduced, sometimes by as much as half. And life at a fire camp is more permissive than in a general population prison.

Inmate firefighters clear brush from a roadside in the Berkeley Hills near Tilden Regional Park on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. Fire officials say fuel reduction projects like this are critical to preventing major wildfires.
Inmate firefighters clear brush from a roadside in the Berkeley Hills near Tilden Regional Park on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. Fire officials say fuel reduction projects like this are critical to preventing major wildfires. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

“Oh man, night and day. It almost feels like you are free there,” said Gary Minnick, a firefighter working at the Kincade Fire in 2019. “Enough to keep you on track and in line, but kinda helping you get back to be able to be reintroduced to the public and out of the politics and the bad stuff that goes along with a regular prison yard. I’d rather be here than where I was at, any day.”

Fire camps have dorms, a dining hall and a yard for working out. Prisoners get to work outside, doing an important job that many take pride in doing. In the off season, they cut fire breaks and do general forest management. When a fire breaks out, they’re often assigned to the most difficult and backbreaking work. They hike cross-country carrying heavy tools like chainsaws, shovels, rakes and other hand tools. Then, in teams of 12-16, they work to clear six-foot wide trenches called fire breaks, to help contain the fire. At times, when a fire is threatening a home, they fight it directly.

“Direct attack. Flames licking in your face. Situations where you have to get in and out quickly with no margin for error,” said Christopher Jones, another incarcerated firefighter who fought at the Kincade Fire last year. “It’s exhilarating. It’s exciting. It’s challenging. You feel like you are alive and you are doing something both positive and productive.”

Legislative Changes

Inmate firefighters seen from a distance, working on the Bully fire.
Inmate firefighters seen from a distance, working on the Bully fire. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

While some former prisoners do get contract jobs working for CalFire or the National Forest Service doing wildland firefighting after they are released, the path to stable employment in municipal fire departments has been very narrow to them for many years. That’s because of a law that says people with felonies can’t get EMT licenses, which are required to become a firefighter in many cities across the state. Advocates have long wanted to see this barrier removed so formerly incarcerated folks with firefighting experience have access to good, well-paid jobs.

This year they got their wish. In September, Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2147, which would make it easier for formerly incarcerated people to have their records expunged, and open the door to an EMT license.

Questions remain about how quickly the state will process requests from formerly incarcerated firefighters, but many are grateful there is now a path forward. Samantha Vetter was fighting fires outside Los Angeles this year, but she was released this summer as part of the state’s push to slow the spread of the coronavirus across the prison system. She says the new legislation gives her hope for a career as a firefighter.

“I feel very grateful that the bill passed and I’m grateful for everyone who voted on it,” Vetter said. “There’s a lot of us that want to change and it is just really going to help. Totally one less obstacle, and I feel blessed that it went through at the perfect time. You know, I did just get out.”

Meanwhile, the governor is shifting resources away from the fire camps. The state plans to shutter eight at the end of fire season, which will mean fewer opportunities for incarcerated people to participate in the program. At the same time, Newsom is expanding the California Conservation Corps, which means the state will bolster the number of civilian hand crews fighting wildland fires while contracting its prison camp program.

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