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California Leans Heavily on Thousands of Inmate Firefighters

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The Bully Fire, which has burned more than 12,600 acres in Shasta County, is nearly contained. In the two weeks since it ignited, about 2,000 firefighters have battled the blaze. Nearly half of them — 900 — are inmates with the California Department of Corrections. These “low-level offenders” making just $2 a day are a crucial component in how the state battles wildfires.


 
“First day we was out here it was like 111 or 115 and that’s not including the fire,” says Emir Dunn. His orange fire suit swamps his slender body, but don’t be fooled by his size. Like most inmate firefighters he lugs more than 100 pounds of gear with him: an axe, food, water, fuel for the chainsaw.

The air tastes like a charcoal briquette. The wind picks up, and a mix of dirt and ash swirl from the ground. Dunn scours the scorched area looking for embers that could reignite. He sees smoke billowing from the ground. He readies the hose and he and a crewmate blast the smoking mound with water.

Emir Dunn at work on the Bully Fire in Shasta County. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Emir Dunn at work on the Bully Fire in Shasta County. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Dunn and 15 others will stay here for a 24-hour shift. They might catch some sleep, but very little. They hiked up here and they’ll hike back to the pick-up point, a slog that’s likely to be several miles.

Each crew has one professional firefighter, a captain, and the rest are men convicted of crimes including drug offenses and armed robbery.

‘It’s just like working with any other group of guys. You kind of get to know their personalities and what they’re capable of.’– Josh Kitchens, Cal Fire

Captain Josh Kitchens looks like he came straight out of central casting: tall with a chiseled jaw and the stare of someone who doesn’t play around. He runs Dunn’s crew. He’s pretty much alone with inmates wielding axes and chainsaws in the middle of a forest that happens to be on fire. But he shrugs it off.

“It’s just like working with any other group of guys,” he says. “You kind of get to know their personalities and what they’re capable of and you put them in positions most suited for them.”

Before he was the captain of this crew Kitchens was a more traditional firefighter, but he says he signed up to oversee an inmate crew five months ago to expand his experience. And he’s impressed with their work ethic.

“These guys are some workhorses,” he says. “When it’s time to do some grunt labor, that’s what we’re good at. Get a lot of stuff done with 16 bodies.”

California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has prisoners and Cal Fire needs firefighters. Across the state there are more than 4,000 inmate firefighters. Their labor saves the state more than $100 million a year, according to CDCR.

An inmate firefighter crew sleeps at a base camp in Redding after a 24-hour shift. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

An inmate firefighter crew rests at a base camp in Redding after a 24-hour shift. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

As far as whether the program affects recidivism, corrections officials say they don’t have hard numbers. Anecdotally though, they say they see fewer of these guys back behind bars than those in other programs or straight out of a prison.

Down the mountain from the Bully Fire, at base camp, inmate Cory Sills is resting after a 24-hour shift. He says he thinks the camps are a success because they’re completely different from prisons.

“There’s an assembly where we have a formation in the mornings and it was like my second or third day and the lieutenant comes out and he goes, ‘Look, we’ll treat you like men first, firefighters second and prisoners if we have to,’” Sills recalls. “That right there, that stuck in my head for two years now because now I have a chance to be treated like a man.”

‘It’s not just the walls you get rid of.’– Michael Dignan, Inmate Firefighter

There are guards at the base camp, but you won’t see guns, truncheons or barbed wire. On-site warehouses and large white makeshift tents, cooled with fans and air conditioners, are sleeping quarters. There’s a medical tent used by both professional firefighters and inmates. Most here are being treated for poison oak.

Then there’s the food: it’s hearty, to keep the inmates fueled for the rough work. Base camps and fire camps like these are where the inmates will do nearly all of their time. When they aren’t fighting fires they do community work, like building a flood barrier or setting up a park for an ice cream social. Once they’re in the program they never spend a night in a prison facility.

“It’s not just the walls you get rid of,” says Michael Dignan, who’s been an inmate firefighter for four years. “You learn a lot about yourself. You learn that there is stuff you can put yourself through that you never thought you would have been able to do.”

Two inmate firefighters at work on the Bully Fire. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Two inmate firefighters at work on the Bully Fire. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

“When you think you’re done, you’re just not. When you see that last hill you have to climb and you tell yourself you can’t make it, you end up at the top of it,” Dignan says.

Dignan will need that kind of perseverance. He’s scheduled to be released in less than 30 days. He says he’ll go back home to Ohio and back to tree trimming; that’s what he did before being locked up.

A few other men say they might try firefighting when they’re released, but most, citing the hot, hard work and long hours, say, “No way.”

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About the Author ()

Alex Helmick edits content for KQED’s 18 daily newscasts and often edits for The California Report. Before coming to KQED, Alex worked in Geneva, where he reported from the United Nations European Headquarters and later hosted a two-hour daily current events program. In 2009, he covered the war in Afghanistan and its impact on the humanitarian crisis in the country. He has also covered business in Chicago and produced the evening news for WBEZ.
  • overandout

    I was ready to be indignant about the state basically using slave labor, but this seems like a great program where inmates can feel like they are contributing to the community and be treated as normal people.

    • NueeArdente

      True and it helps them pay back some of the costs associated with keeping them incarcerated. Further I would think it would figure well into a parole hearing. Giving to the community should go a long way toward being considered worthy of parole.
      I would even hope that there is some sort of program reducing their terms for their fire fighting efforts. For every day fighting a fire, two days of your sentence are reduced or some such. If that doesn’t exist it should.

      • http://wiseoldsnail.org/ wiseoldsnail

        it’s likely they shouldn’t even be incarcerated, and are only abducted and caged to profit the private prison system

      • Gary B

        My son was given something like 35% off his time to just sit in general population. Then after being accepted into the fire camp the number went to 50%.

    • http://wiseoldsnail.org/ wiseoldsnail

      slave labor is slave labor . no amount of bs justification changes that

  • Gary B

    My son finally got back to his Camp yesterday and was able to call. My God, it was so good to hear from him. He fought most of the major fires last year as well but said that the Bully Fire was crazy. I just wish I could find a report somewhere online that included his photo.

  • http://sandersak.com/ Adrian Sanders

    Just a note – there aren’t 24hr shifts. The most you can work is 16hrs on. Some of the best experiences I had in fire were working with the orange crews. Best workers, and most excited to attack the fire.

    • foothillman

      Not true, CAL FIRE runs 24 hour shifts on all major incidents. U.S. Forest Service employees can only work 16 hours in a day and leave the line when their time is up. CAL FIRE resources and firefighter’s can stay on the line until they are relieved by other resources. I have seen some shifts on major fire’s (CAL FIRE) with limited resources run for over 48 hours. The normal shift at a fire station for CAL FIRE firefighter’s is 72 hours straight.

      • http://sandersak.com/ Adrian Sanders

        Ah sorry, realize now these are CAL FIRE, not Fed. I stand corrected.

    • MRHahn

      That’s just not true, Adrian. I have worked both 24 and 36 hour shifts as an inmate firefighter, but never a 16.

      • http://sandersak.com/ Adrian Sanders

        Yep, see that now, thanks for the note.

  • TL

    I too, have over 6000 hours logged on the fire line as an inmate firefighter. It was 24 hour shifts sometimes for 3-4 weeks. For me, it was an experience of a lifetime. We did the things real CAL firefighters dont do, like build miles and miles of fireline around the fire. They get big money, we got a $1 an hour. So in some sense, it is slave labor, while they stayed at the bottom of the hill, kicking back at their trucks, we worked hard hiking and cutting fire line. I do have to say, it change my life! It gave me work ethic, taught me what life is really about! I have now been released for 10 years, and will not ever return to prison. The inmate firefighters are the real heros in fighting these fires, but the real world doesnt ever see it!

  • Debbie Bramlett

    a lot of thanks got to the inmates that help with the fires. I never new what they did until my son became one. they are amazing. They do the same work as the firefighters and take great pride in their work, I know my son does.they save lives and property. They also work mon thru fri even during the off season. they clear shrub to save property. many more duties. thank you one and all. love and miss you Eric