Incarcerated men & women in CA have a long history as supplemental fire fighters. Starting in the 1940’s, these folks were recruited to replace the men who went abroad to participate in World War II. More than 3,900 men & women, including juvenile offenders, voluntarily serve on the force today for one dollar an hour. (‘Volunteer’ is an awkward term in this context, but we’ll get into that later). Collectively, they make up roughly 1/3rd of CA’s wildfire-fighting personnel. These folks work an average of 10 million hours each year responding to fires & are spread out at 43 conservation camps.
Incarcerated fire fighters are forced to perform the most dangerous tasks associated with fire-fighting. Often, they operate as the first line of defense against spreading fires, and are tasked with digging trenches or clearing spaces from combustible material to stop or redirect advancing flames. So far this year, two of these folks have died in the line of duty.
CDCR claimed that only low-level non-violent incarcerated folks were eligible to participate in these programs. But after Realignment, none of those types of individuals were left in prisons. The result is a firefighting force made up by 40% of folks with violent charges. (Note: ‘violent offenders’ is a wildly imprecise term).
Let’s return to the conversation about ‘volunteer’ fire fighters. Few things in a prison environment could be said to be truly volunteer, and volunteer in this context implicates themes of coercion, abuse, & exploitation. Many may join these fire camps to escape the banality of prison ecosystems. Folks at fire camps are not confined behind fences, it’s perhaps a more welcoming environment for family visits, they receive better pay than average prison jobs, & they can accelerate their time off by earning credits for early release. But they still receive very little in returning for risking their lives, & for doing work that is incredibly valuable to CA. During the fire season they frequently work 24 hour shifts for less than a tenth of their civilian counterparts. They also save CA over $100 million each year — money that otherwise would be spent on civilian firefighters.
The number of incarcerated firefighters in CA has fallen 13% since 2008. Now seems like a good time to mention that these highly trained folks who risk their lives for one dollar an hour are barred from being professional firefighters once released from prison because of felony convictions. It should also be noted that future natural disasters like forest fires in CA are unavoidable & inevitable.