As flames consume parts of California, an unexpected group of firefighters has put their lives at risk to protect communities: prison inmates.
For $2 per day — and another $1 an hour when battling fires — qualified inmates can volunteer to help authorities combat fires.
More than 1,500 of the roughly 9,000 firefighters dealing with the current fires are through the state’s Conservation Camp Program, which began working with fire officials to add firefighters in the 1940s.
For the inmates who volunteer, the program offers sentence reductions and more comfortable prison accommodations. Inmates who have been convicted of crimes like sexual offenses and arson are not eligible to volunteer.
Participants are given “the same entry-level training” that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, gives its seasonal firefighters, in addition to the same ongoing training, according to the state.
“Boulders the size of Volkswagens”
Daniel Erickson spent five years fighting fires for the state while serving a sentence for drug possession. His sentence was reduced by a year the first time he went to fire camp.
“I never felt like, ‘I can’t believe I got myself into this, what was I thinking,’ ” said Erickson, who now works to install redwood fences. “Was I scared at times? Yes, but I’ve been scared in the regular prison setting more so than on the fire line.”
Erickson described working conditions that include temperatures above 100 degrees and “boulders the size of Volkswagens” rolling past him as he and his colleagues fought to protect communities.
When inmate firefighters aren’t battling blazes, their duties can include maintaining parks, clearing brush and fallen trees, and sand bagging as part of conservation and community service projects, according to the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Using inmates to fight fires saves the state $100 million per year, according to WBUR, but critics say the program amounts to slave labor. In August, David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said prisoners are a “uniquely vulnerable part of the workforce.”
While Erickson agrees that inmate firefighters are underpaid, he pushes back at the comparison to slave labor.
“This is very, very hard work, and at times I felt like just, I’m done, I can’t do no more,” he said. “And that’s when I would tell the captain … if we don’t want some mistakes and some injuries, we need to lay it down for a minute, and then we would lay down and we would rest.”
It’s not just injuries that could happen. At least six inmate firefighters have been killed in the line of duty since 1983.
“A lot of times when an inmate was hurt back in the day, they didn’t mention that an inmate firefighter was killed,” Erickson said.
“Now they say three firefighters were killed. They didn’t say it was an inmate firefighter. They said he was a firefighter, because that’s what he was.”
The communities that are protected by the inmate firefighters are also aware of the work being done.
Residents in Santa Rosa, Calif., shook hands and shared hugs with a team of inmate firefighters after their neighborhood survived last year’s Tubbs Fire, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported last year. The fire killed 22 people and destroyed roughly 5,600 buildings.
Erickson said firefighting was the hardest work he has ever done, but that it was worth it to him.
“I could be sitting behind the [prison] wall right now, dealing with all the drama that that entails, or I could be out here helping save this part of California because of this disaster.”
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