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'An Untapped Pool of Talent': Why Isn't California Hiring More Formerly Incarcerated Firefighters?

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firefighters wearing yellow protective jackets and armed with chainsaws, standing in a forward-facing line.
Formerly incarcerated firefighter cadets line up at the Ventura Training Center during a demonstration on July 14, 2022, in Camarillo. The program was developed in 2018 as a pipeline for those who fought fires in prison to become professional firefighters. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As wildfires rage across California each year, often with increasing ferocity, exhausted firefighters call for reinforcements from wherever they can get them — even as far as Australia.

Yet one homegrown resource is rarely used: thousands of experienced firefighters who earned their chops in prison. Two state programs designed to get more formerly incarcerated firefighters hired professionally have barely made a dent, according to an Associated Press review. One of them, a $30 million effort, has netted jobs for just over 100 firefighters, accounting for little more than one-third of those enrolled in the program.

Clad in distinctive orange uniforms, scores of incarcerated crews fan out across the state each summer and fall to protect multimillion-dollar homes by cutting brush and trees with chain saws and scraping the earth to create barriers they hope will stop flames. For that sometimes life-threatening labor, most are paid just a few dollars a day.

Once freed from prison, however, the formerly incarcerated have trouble getting hired professionally because of their criminal records, despite a first-in-the-nation, 18-month-old law designed to ease their way and a four-year-old training program that cost taxpayers at least $180,000 per graduate.

“It’s absolutely an untapped pool of talent," said Genevieve Rimer, director of supportive services at the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, where she helps formerly incarcerated people try to clear their records. “Thousands of people are coming back from California’s fire camps annually. They have already been trained. They have a desire to go and put their lives on the line in order to ensure public safety.”

California is hardly alone in needing seasoned firefighters, but the nation's most populous state faces different challenges from other more sparsely settled Western regions. A wildfire that nearly leveled the Sierra Nevada foothills town of Paradise nearly four years ago, for instance, was the nation’s deadliest wildfire in nearly a century, killing 85 people.

The U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department are short about 1,650 firefighters, nearly 650 of them in California, according to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, in a recent letter to Biden administration officials.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the California legislation in 2020, which allows people who were formerly incarcerated for mostly nonviolent offenses to seek to withdraw guilty pleas or overturn convictions. A judge can then dismiss those charges.

Since the law took effect, the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, started by two formerly incarcerated firefighters, has worked with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles to help other formerly incarcerated people clear their records and get hired.

Yet they have only been able to file 34 petitions, and just 12 had records expunged during what the program warns “can be a long and drawn out process.”

Ashleigh Dennis, one of at least three attorneys filing expungement petitions through the Oakland-based advocacy group Root & Rebound, said she has only been able to file 23 requests, of which just 14 have been granted.

Among other hurdles, applicants must demonstrate to a judge that they have been rehabilitated. Furthermore, the expungement only applies to the specific convictions that led to their firefighting duties while incarcerated. Many people have unrelated convictions that must be separately expunged.

It's been a learning curve to educate judges about the law and get the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to speed up the court certification process, said Dennis.

Da’Ton Harris Jr. can attest to that. His record was finally cleared in August, about 18 months after starting the process.

“I’m out here, a public servant, risking my life every day to try and better my community," said Harris. “I don’t think it was a smooth transaction at all.”

Despite his record, Harris obtained firefighting jobs with the U.S. Forest Service, the state's firefighting agency Cal Fire, and the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program.

But his initial advancement was limited because his criminal record made him ineligible for an emergency medical technician (EMT) certification, an obstacle that disappeared with the expungement. Outside of temporary federal and state firefighting agency jobs, most fire departments require applicants to be licensed EMTs — a certification the state bans certain incarcerated people from obtaining because the job comes with access to narcotics and sharp objects.

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Rimer, of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, said California should automatically expunge records of eligible formerly incarcerated people, much as it does for those convicted of antiquated marijuana crimes. And, she added, it should include their entire criminal record.

“I think it spearheaded opportunity for people, but I don’t think it’s good enough,” she said of the current expungement law.

The law's author, Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino, has been struggling ever since the measure took effect to find out how many formerly incarcerated people it has helped. She said many beneficiaries of the program have contacted her office to praise “the life-changing impact of the legislation.”

CDCR informs eligible incarcerated people about the law but doesn't track expungements, said department spokesperson Tessa Outhyse. Cal Fire, the court system and the state Department of Justice also couldn't say how many have had their records expunged.

In another effort, California in 2018 created a training program to help formerly incarcerated people get hired professionally.

The 18-month program is run by Cal Fire, the California Conservation Corps, the state corrections department and the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition at the Ventura Training Center northwest of Los Angeles.

Participants spend six months on life skills and firefighter training and the next year fighting or preventing fires and doing other community service, for which they are paid $1,905 a month. The center has 60 participants, working on four fire crews.

In four years the program has cost over $29.5 million, but has had just 106 graduates.

Nearly all found a professional job: Ninety-eight are with Cal Fire, and three are with other agencies, including the Orange County Fire Authority and the U.S. Forest Service, according to CDCR officials. Cal Fire provided slightly different figures.

But they're the fortunate ones among the 277 who have participated since the program's inception. Another 111 participants, or 40%, left before completing the program, said Outhyse.

Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and destructive, so the shortage comes at a time when demand for wildfire crews is on the rise.

And the state is turning more to professional wildland firefighters, largely because incarcerated crews are less available due to the growing number of lower-level incarcerated people who have been released early in recent years — the result of voter initiatives and measures to stem COVID outbreaks.

This August, about 1,670 incarcerated people are in fire camps, doing work such as cooking and laundry, down about 40% from August 2019. CDCR was budgeted for 152 crews this year, but fielded just 51, each with about 15 to 18 firefighters.

With fewer incarcerated crews, California is relying more on other agencies, including the conservation corps, and is creating what officials are calling the first all-hazards fire engine strike team, which is operated by a state National Guard unit, and can respond both to wildfires and urban blazes.

“We’ve recognized for a few years now that due to early release, due to COVID, a number of other reasons, we have to do something,” said Battalion Chief Isaac Sanchez, a Cal Fire spokesperson.

An earlier version of this story misstated the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department firefighter shortage in California. It is about 650, not 1,000.

Gabe Stern, of The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed to this story from Reno, Nevada.



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