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CA's fire crisis not a guarantee of jobs for prisoner-firefighters

California trains prisoners to fight wildfires while they are incarcerated, but turning that training and experience into jobs when they get out is not simple.
An inmate firefighter examines a burning structure while battling the Loma fire near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.
An inmate firefighter examines a burning structure while battling the Loma fire near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.

As California continues burning through another historic period of wildfires the news cycle can become jammed with evacuations, environmental fears and involuntary power shutoffs. All this because intense Santa Ana Winds have collided with extremely dry land and power lines which have set many of the fires.

As part of the state’s ongoing effort to combat fires, it’s no secret that prisoners have been working on the front lines of the fight, often as hand units, doing similar work to California’s seasonal wildland firefighters.

California’s Conservation Camp is a rehabilitation and re-entry program in California under the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation where inmates do this kind of firefighting work. It began in 1946 and operates currently in 27 counties in California. It’s billed as a career pipeline that gets prisoners ready for jobs.

“An inmate must volunteer for the fire camp program; no one is involuntarily assigned to work in a fire camp,” Alexandra Powell the Public Information Officer for CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said. Participants are required to have “minimum custody” status, the lowest classification of crimes.

CAL FIRE is the organization that trains and deploys the prisoners. Powell says prisoner firefighters receive the same training, education and equipment as California’s seasonal wildland firefighters.

Approximately 2,150 of 3,100 prisoners are currently qualified to be on the front lines of fighting these fires, according to Powell. The CDCR has previously stated that the program saves the state between $90 and $100 million a year in firefighting costs, but currently has no confirmed dollar figure.

Deputy Chief Scott McLean with CAL FIRE communications said the prisoner populations are essential.

“Being able to deal with the prevention side which is extremely important, where the inmates come into play as well. They just don’t fight fire. We have project work that we’re all involved in as far as prevention out there in the wild land area,” McLean said.

While the camps provide training and education for prisoners, there are concerns about whether the opportunity for employment after leaving the program are realistic. Neither CAL FIRE nor the Conservation Camp had complete records of post-program job placement.

Last year, CAL FIRE and CDCR started a post-release training center in Ventura, California that offers more advanced training to help place more prisoners in entry-level firefighter positions, including with CAL FIRE itself. But although CAL FIRE and private municipal firefighting crews do not require EMT licenses, most California firefighting positions are union jobs under California’s Professional Firefighters Union, all of which require an EMT license. As state regulations stand today, inmates have to wait 10 years after their release before being eligible to receive their EMT license and therefore do not qualify for the majority of full time firefighting positions in the state.

“It may sound like that’s exactly what we would want, a pipeline for these former inmates to know that there is a future for them as a firefighter, but the pipeline, there is nothing in the end,” laments California Assemblymember Eloise Reyes.

Reyes has been an advocate for changing the California code restricting inmates from receiving an EMT license. She’s tried, and failed, to pass legislation to amend the rules for multiple years in a row.

“We still have firefighters who fought in the conservation camp and still were not able to get a job as a firefighter,” Reyes said, “They’re all felons, they’ve all been convicted of felonies and [with] that alone, you cannot get an EMT license with a felony conviction.”

The California Professional Firefighters Union is Reye’s biggest opposition in changing the law.

“There may be an issue about trust,” Reyes says. “I think that when we recognize that nearly 8 million Californians have a criminal conviction. When we look at the fact that if 80% of jobs in California require some sort of a license or certificate for clearance and we’re shutting out an entire group of potential workers.”

Carroll Wills, Communications Director for California Professional Firefighters (CPF), says previous attempts at legislation have been unrealistic.

“There’s not a job. There’s not a firefighting job waiting at the end of this,” Wills said. From his perspective, even if that law were to change, these inmates would still be entering an over-saturated job market where “there’s literally hundreds of applicants for every open firefighting job in California.”

CPF has been wary of speeding up the professional training process, and wanted more oversight in maintaining high standards for new firefighters. Additionally, the union has not taken a formal stance on whether these fire camps should exist at all.

“Rather than putting those standards at risk, we felt it was a better approach to get to provide individuals who are doing, as I said, hard and necessary work, a real second chance,” Wills said.

“Our concern about Assemblywoman Reyes’s legislation as it was envisioned, was that it sought to create a more direct path for former inmates directly into local public safety departments,” Wills said.

The training that prisoners receive at the conservation camps does not cover all the training needed to be a firefighter. According to Wills, tasks like structure entries, direct fire attacks and calls regarding hazardous materials are missing from the program’s curriculum.

Wills suggest a change in focus of prisoners’ post-program employment. “We have a need for forest management, fuel mitigation, resource protection, all things that are key to fire prevention,” he said.

As the push to change current legislation grows, Reyes says the justice system should work for the inmates, not against them.

“If we believe in the concept of redemption, if we believe in the concept of having a finite sentence and paying your debt to society, we should also find a way to make sure that there is a path for former inmates to move forward in most any job.”

CORRECTIONS (Nov. 20, 2019, 6:10 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the first name of the CAL FIRE spokesman. He is Deputy Chief Scott McLean, not Sean. Also, a previous version of this article incorrectly described the training prisoner firefighters receive. It is the same as seasonal wildland firefighters, not regular firefighters.

UPDATE: (Nov. 20, 2019, 6:10 p.m.): This story has been edited for clarity and updated with information about the CAL FIRE/CDCR Ventura program.