Inmate firefighters risk death at $1 an hour

Firefighters cross scorched terrain in the Padres National Forest. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

Some were bank robbers, car thieves and burglars. Now they are on the front lines in the scary and dangerous job of saving California from raging wildfires.

There are about 3,900 of them, all state prison inmate volunteers from 44 fire camps spread across California. They are providing vital reinforcements to the army of men and women battling a host of fires from Oregon to Mexico. The fires include the largest blaze in nearly a century.

They do much of the necessary grunt work — digging and scraping containment lines while carrying 60 pounds of gear.

The inmates earn $2 a day and $1 an hour while firefighting. In addition, they earn two days off their sentences for every day in the fire camps. Volunteers come only from minimum-custody inmates. Those convicted of sex crimes, escape attempts — and arson — are not eligible. Inmates have been known to put in 72 hours straight on a fire line.

Former Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, now running as an Independent for lieutenant governor, thinks the pay is ‘way too low, calling it “slave labor.”

Before joining the fire crews, inmates must pass a fitness test. After that, they receive three weeks of basic firefighting training. When working on wildfires they do much of the necessary grunt work — digging and scraping containment lines while carrying 60 pounds of gear that includes gloves, flares, food, water bottles, medical supplies and an emergency shelter in case they are overtaken by fast-moving flames. Some inmates also carry chain saws.

The groups of 12 inmates are each led by an expert firefighter from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. Some 250 of them are female. Three of the 44 fire camps, all located in Southern California, are female-only. The Malibu camp boasts yoga and meditation sessions.

“The smoke was so thick you could chew it.” — Lyn Roberts

Inmate firefighters are motivated primarily by the relative freedom, along with the time taken off their sentences and the gratification of doing vital work.

It is hard to overstate the ferocity of the blazes they face. The biggest wildfires create their own weather — 50-mile-an-hour tornado-type winds while sending twisting billows of gray and tan smoke hundreds of feet into the sky. Two inmate firefighters were killed in 2017.

Bay Area resident Lyn Roberts, on what was to have been a carefree getaway, found herself driving through the Northern California fire zone.

“The smoke was so thick you could chew it,” she told Capitol Weekly.

From 250 miles above Earth, astronauts have snapped photos of the wildfires and their towering clouds of smoke.
“Data & imagery of the California wildfires from our satellites, people in space and aircraft, not only give us a better view of the activity, but also help first responders plan their course of action,” the National Aeronautics and Space Agency says.

Inmate firefighters are a good deal for taxpayers, saving up to $100 million a year.

As of Aug. 6, California this year had a total of 3,981 wildfires that blackened 629,531 acres and killed at least seven people.

Twin wildfires that merged, doubled in size and became the Mendocino Complex fire have blackened 283,800 acres, or 443 square miles, in Colusa, Lake and Mendocino counties. Cal Fire now ranks it as the biggest California wildfire in 90 years.

The Thomas fire that burned nearly 282,000 acres in December 2017 across parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties is now ranked second.

As of Monday, California had 3,781 firefighters and a fleet of 15 helicopters on the Mendocino Complex scene. In addition to personnel from Cal Fire, they come from the U.S. Forestry Service, the state prison fire camps and a host of local fire departments. Some firefighters arrived this week from New Zealand.

Inmate firefighters are a good deal for taxpayers, saving up to $100 million a year, according to state prisons spokesman Bill Sessa.

The future may not bode well for the inmate-firefighter program, however. Since 2011, state officials under a court mandate have been steadily reducing the state’s prison population, thinning the ranks of those eligible for the program, which has dropped by more than 13 percent in the past nine years.

Scientists have warned that climate change is making big wildfires “the new normal” across California and around the world.

Prisoners have been battling wildfires in California dating back to World War Two, when there was a shortage of manpower on the home front. There are success stories — the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation proudly announced in July that former inmates Daton Harris and Royal Ramey have joined Cal Fire ranks as regular employees.

The wildfires have prompted presidential-level political comment. President Donald Trump argued that the wildfires would not have been as bad if it weren’t for California’s environmental laws.

“California wildfires are being magnified and made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!” he tweeted earlier this week.

Since at least some of the major wildfires are raging next to lakes that provide water for quenching the flames, California fire officials are still scratching their heads.

Scientists have warned that climate change is making big wildfires “the new normal” across California and around the world. There have been giant fires in Greece, Portugal and Sweden during the past few weeks.

“The effects of global warming on temperature, precipitation levels, and soil moisture are turning many of our forests into kindling during wildfire season,” the Union of Concerned Scientists warned in a recent statement.

If that grim prognosis holds, inmate firefighters, more than ever before, are likely to become the new normal on the front lines of firefighting.


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