When it was signed back in September 2020, Assembly Bill 2147 felt like a fitting reward for heroes doing heroes’ work, regardless of their criminal background. The bill offers the chance for inmate fire crew members to get their records expunged in exchange for their service fighting wildfires through the distinguished Conservation Camp Program within the California Department of Corrections.

“Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter,” Gov. Newsom said upon signing the bill into law. “AB 2147 will fix that.”

On paper, it appeared to provide a big incentive for nonviolent offenders who qualify for the program that would have resulted in a necessary spike in numbers of inmates who may want to participate. Yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of early release programs signed into law since 2015, the number of inmate fire crews available for service has been cut by more than 50 percent and in some cases, even lower. Those numbers dwindle at a rapid pace as correctional facilities throughout the state continue closing due to decreased populations.

Speaking to Newsweek, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) said, “The health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff continues to be our top priority. We continue to work with our partners during this pandemic to balance that priority with being able to provide assistance to California’s wildfire prevention and response efforts.”

As of April 30, 2021, CDCR was reported to have released 4,076 inmates this year, which reportedly included inmates from the Conservation Camp Program who could potentially work as inmate crew members for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which is responsible for fighting fires over roughly 100 million acres of California land, according to Cal Fire’s website. 

As the inmate fire crew population shrinks, even notorious burn areas within the state become more difficult to contain. The California Correctional Center in Lassen County, located near two national forests in the northeastern part of the state, is scheduled to close its doors in June 2022, relocating its fire training program nearly five hours south to the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.

This year, Cal Fire reports that it’s received $80 million in emergency state funds to cover the shortfall of inmate crews by hiring an additional 1,400 firefighters for this year and next year, including private hand crews, National Guard fire crews and seasonal workers. However, even with heroic efforts by its reinforcement wildland fire crews, it’s a struggle to make up for the shortfall of the inmate firefighter population that seems to be burning out its candle at both ends. Currently Cal Fire is funded to have access to about 152 inmate crews; however, there are only 53 crews that are currently available to respond.

“Last year as this year with COVID, more low-level offenders have been released, and then also we’ve got crews on quarantine here and they’re unavailable,” Cal Fire Information Officer Christine McMorrow told CEB. “So that has exacerbated the problem.” Most of the inmates released are the lowest security prisoners, who are prime candidates for early release.

It’s an issue that creates a moral impasse across the board. California is facing an alarming shortage of firefighters during an unprecedented series of fire seasons. But advocates for incarcerated people argue that California shouldn’t be relying so heavily on prison labor in the first place to fight fire — dangerous work for which some inmates make as little as $1 an hour — even if that work could develop skills that lead to future employment once those people are released.

“I’m very conflicted on this subject, because if you look at it is kind of an indentured servitude,” said Brandon Dunham, a former California wildland firefighter. “But also I see the benefits and, after talking to several corporate firefighters who were former inmates, this program has done wonderful things for their life, gave them an opportunity to get a kickass job doing the stuff that they’ve already been trained to do.”

However, Dunham says the general public doesn’t understand how much we rely on programs like these to bolster numbers in the field.

“Without that, plus with the decline of [firefighters] and the attrition rates they are already experiencing, California might be kinda screwed. We need those people,” Dunham said.

Getting Burned at the Bottom Rungs

Since 1915, the state has relied on inmate fire crews to service and protect wildland forest areas. During World War II, when civilian firefighters were being deployed for military service, the program started utilizing inmate firefighters to take care of fire emergencies during the war. As fire season has now become a protracted, nearly year-long effort, inmates have become a more heavily needed resource than ever before.

Inmate firefighters, under the direction of a fire captain, typically operate in crews of around 14 people focusing on reinforcing containment lines. With shovels and pickaxes in hand, both male and female crews fight fires by digging holes, chopping wood, clearing brush and providing essential support for state and federal firefighters.

These crews were used to help contain last August’s North Complex Fire, which was ignited by a series of lightning strikes and merged with smaller fires over the course of several weeks. They also helped with protecting 30,000 acres in the Sheep Fire, which got extremely close to a major correctional facility in Susanville.

However, as massive understaffing of these crews takes its toll this year, McMorrow said Cal Fire has reported over 1,000 more fires than during this time last year.

“It’s definitely a more intense start than last year,” McMorrow said. “And we are going into it with dry conditions and dry fuel moistures, so that is definitely concerning.”

It’s bad enough that regular wildland firefighters are leaving the profession due to lack of insurance and low wages, some earning approximately $13.45 an hour.

“You can make more money working at McDonald’s than you can as a wildland firefighter,” Dunham said. “As a prisoner coming out and jumping into this profession, you’d expect to make some good money, but unfortunately it’s not the case in the feds, so the better option for these inmates is to go to a private, contract firefighting agency like Firestorm.”

On a recent episode of Dunham’s podcast The Anchor Point, which focuses on the lives of wildland firefighters, Dunham spoke to longtime friend and former inmate Mando Perez, who talked about going through fire camp and working as an inmate firefighter. Growing up poor in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, he fell into a cycle of gang violence and juvenile incarceration. But after signing up for a fire camp training while in juvenile detention, he turned his life around and become a skilled firefighter in a number of county and state-run inmate fire programs. He now works on an elite firefighting crew full-time as a free man following his release.

“You do have people that come to inmate camp, and they realize it’s not for them and they decide to go back to prison,” Perez said. “But the people who do want to do better or get good at something like this or make amends for whatever they have going on in their lives, they use this as a stepping stone because this is something positive they can do right now, so they run with it.”

However, considering the immediate and long-term deadly hazards of inhaling smoke and enduring extreme temperatures for a living, it’s likely that even inmates who have served in CDCR fire crews would make the pledge to become fully licensed firefighters when they get out.

Using Law to Spark Opportunity

When it comes to the number of inmates taking advantage of AB 2147, there are signs that suggest it’s a bit of a slow burn.

Since AB 2147 passed, attorney Robert Boyd of Ukiah said he’s the first attorney to help a nonviolent offender convicted on controlled substance abuse charges in Mendocino County to use his fire crew service to get his record expunged in order to pursue his path to becoming EMT before he lands a job as a full-fledged firefighter.

He recalls meeting with the inmate, a bright articulate guy who told him he’d worked hard to clean up his act the minute the jail bars slammed on him. Boyd’s client participated in the Conservation Camp program at Devil’s Garden in Modoc County, fighting over 100 fires throughout 2019.

Despite failing to get probation early on, the inmate enrolled in a fire crew program and was able to get his record expunged. “He really just from the outset really had this attitude of, ‘Hey, I’m doing right from this moment forward, and he had a real credibility about it,’” Boyd said.

Looking to be the first attorney to take on this type of case, Boyd said he’s glad to see the laws change in favor of supporting model candidates deserving of a second chance. After his release, Boyd’s client went on to earn EMT certification and is currently a firefighter outside of California.

“As an attorney, so often you’re copying and pasting something that’s already been done. For once I really got to just sort of say, ‘Well, let’s have a look at what this law says and draft up a motion that’s consistent with it,’” Boyd said.

Setting Fire to a Vicious Cycle

Though clients like Boyd’s are inspiring, stories like these are rare and highlight the fact that whether they are incarcerated or newly freed, fewer inmates are signing on to fight California wildfires that are growing increasingly larger and out of control.

For Dunham, that problem requires changing firefighting strategy and suppression tactics, not just increasing manpower. This requires the reintroduction of fire at the right time in the right places to avoid massive blazes like the Complex Fire, the first million-plus acre fire in California history. The lack of reintroduction of fire into the ecosystem, paired with overgrown forests and a catastrophic drought year is a recipe for disaster, Dunham said.

Yet this vicious cycle comes back around to the fact that California doesn’t have the the personnel to fight the massive spike in fire season that is increasingly becoming all year round. All firefighting agencies bear this burden, including prisoners on the bottom rung doing what they can to provide a much needed service. However, Dunham said, regardless of incarceration status, those that provide this service should be served more dignity and better opportunities in return.

“If you really want to change the dynamic of any institution, you need to listen to the people that are oftentimes doing the hard work that isn’t being recognized, you have to start at the grassroots,” he said.

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