History of California’s inmate firefighting: Since WWII, California has relied on inmates to combat fires. Prisoners must meet security criteria and undergo two weeks of training to enter the Conservation Camp Program. All-inmate crews live in fire camps led by Cal Fire. They make between $2.90 and $5 a day, more when fighting a fire. Historically, they’ve made up around one-third of California’s firefighting force.
The story of these jailed firefighters dates back more than a century; prison work is probably as old as California. Inmates on nearby ships erected San Quentin State Prison after the Gold Rush and California’s 1850 admission into the Union. Inmates in road camps met the needs of a growing, mobile population at the beginning of the 20th century.
Wildfires are fought differently from residential or commercial structure fires. First respondents fight infernos from the air and the ground, spending days or weeks near blazes that eat acres of vegetation and change size and speed.
In California, convict firefighters establish hand-crews to create breaches in vegetation and barren land to starve flames. Handsaws, shovels, and axes are used to hand-cut these perimeters. Cal Fire’s Conservation Camp Program manager said, “We’re on the fire’s edge.”… It becomes intense when you’re fighting a fire with hand tools and there’s no water.
It’s hazardous labor. Four convict firefighters have died in recent years. Rock hit Shawna Jones. Matthew Beck was murdered by a 3,000-pound tree; Frank Anaya by a chainsaw; and Anthony Colacino by heart failure while hiking. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation recognizes them.
According to a 2018 Time study, inmate firefighters are four times more likely to be hurt by objects and eight times more likely to inhale smoke. Over 1,000 needed hospital care in the previous five years, according to Time.
Jaime Lowe, author of Breathing Fire, which follows Jones and other female inmates, says some women experience permanent health consequences from their employment. “They don’t get money for back pain or a blown-out knee,” she says. “They’ve risked everything.”
Prisoners’ sacrifices have often been overlooked. News stories show inmates hurt or dying fighting flames. In 1958, a flame in the San Joaquin Valley “consumed” an inmate. A 1961 letter from inmates opposing an article that said they “scraped the barrel” for firefighters highlighted a guy in San Quentin Hospital, “where he will remain, maybe for the remainder of his life.”
The program is also an equalizer, blending the viewpoints of firefighters and convicts. Schmollinger: “Fire doesn’t know if you’re a volunteer, paid, or imprisoned.”
Crises are similar. In a letter praising inmates for battling a 1961 fire in Guerneville, a resident recounted meeting a woman who didn’t know the inmates’ identities. He wrote, “I informed her you were criminals.” She responded, “I don’t care.” they saved my home. “
Adam Azevedo says becoming a fireman shaped his identity. According to him, his first time at camp gave him a sense of self-worth.Recalling his bosses’ trust and saving two lives, he believes it “established at least a belief in myself that I could be good at something good.”
Proponents of the program highlight relative freedom, better conditions in fire camps, and the possibility to learn new skills. Many Cal Fire roles were inaccessible to formerly jailed firemen due to criminal histories, but a bill passed in 2020 reduced those obstacles. Critics say the program exploits inmates.
Inmates get a dollar a day for their perilous labor. Lowe said the program is “one of the hardest professions in the world.” “It’s really troubling that individuals are willing to sacrifice their lives to avoid prison,” she says. It’s a choice between two evils.
These baseline settings muddle volunteer incentives and disincentives. Despite loving firefighting, Azevedo says, “I didn’t know what to expect.” I knew I wouldn’t be in prison with riots, stabbings, and narcotics. ” He needed permission from the prison yard’s shot caller before entering the program during his second sentence, or he risked being hit.
California’s reliance on prisoner labor to combat fires is tied to early 20th-century population increases and rural expansion. Any increase in flames not tied to climatic issues is due to the spread of our suburban-rural interfaces,” says Volker Janssen, a historian at Cal State Fullerton.
Schmollinger adds California’s topography and human colonization history pose distinct concerns. Nestled within natural territory, residential districts are vulnerable to flames. Others can burn 100,000 acres and let nature take its course. Here, you’d lose communities.
In 1915, California’s population boomed, and highways were needed in harsh terrain. Inmates carved mountain paths using picks and shovels.
This effort promoted the belief that depending on inmates was good for the state and the individual, and that outdoor labor encouraged morality. Lloyd Thorpe says in Men to Match the Mountains that state officials used road camps to relieve “overcrowding and enervating inactivity.” They also believed “a felon may be eased into a more open situation for his own good.”
The Great Depression brought a new period for camps, but for a different demographic. In April 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to rehabilitate forest areas. Thorpe called the laborer camps “forerunners” to prisons. In a fireside chat, Roosevelt said, “We’re saving not only our natural resources but our human resources.”
Another shock altered the camps. California was especially exposed to fire as a weapon after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. This tripled Forestry’s budget (known today as Cal Fire). The draft and enlistment of men hurt these units. State officials dipped into existing prison encampments where convicts worked on environmental initiatives. These prisoners fought fire well.
Inmates who were called upon to assist in stopping a 1944 fire at their forestry camp in Southern California said they were “manpower gold to Uncle Sam.” Then first firefighting camp was established in 1946 near San Diego. The corrections and forestry departments administered it, a concept still being used today.
The rise of camps coincided with a concept of incarceration as rehabilitation, not punishment. Philip Goodman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, argues “it’s really flexible.” After World War II, prison officials wanted to make California a leader in prisons.
A 1957 Division of Forestry report said, “The State of California can be proud of this progressive effort.” Despite prison authorities’ enthusiasm, new remote encampments were often met with skepticism or hostility. Residents of Meadow Vista, a Sierra Nevada foothills neighborhood, protested a proposed camp in 1950.
One woman asked Governor Earl Warren to “intercede” on their behalf, saying that if the camp were erected, “our hearts would be filled with terror and distrust of every visitor.”
During this time of growth, forestry and correctional officials showed the usefulness of the program through one-on-one visits, tours of successful camps, town meetings, and courtship of the media.
In Meadow Vista, State Forester DeWitt Nelson changed course and told county officials in a letter that “we cannot risk the success of the program” by moving forward.
Wildfire-prone towns needed firefighters. “Not in my backyard” triumphed. Janssen says, “We don’t think they’re safe to live with, but they make areas safe.”
Firefighters’ efforts show the trust placed in program participants. Arsonists and sexual offenders are ineligible; other restrictions focus on prison terms. Azevedo remembers his mother’s astonishment over a birthday dinner in the camp setting: “I can’t believe they’re handing you a knife.” Mom, I operate a chainsaw 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. They’re not frightened of my knives. “
In 1959, Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown sought an expansion of the camp program, despite some communities’ reluctance. In seven years, 42 camps dotted the state. A 1961 state legislative report observed that the term “conservation camp” was selected because the “focus of the program was moved to conservation of both people and resources.”
“It would be foolish to save our trees but lose the struggle to save the guys from future useless lives,” the report said. Brown enjoyed his initiative’s success in 1964. Crestline, in the San Bernadino Mountains, honored the convicts of Pilot Rock Conservation Camp for helping save the town from a fire.
They were wary of the camp, but now they’re creating a statue honoring the firefighters. Chamber of Commerce president William Bieber praised their work: “It’s about time.” The governor recalls petitions he got when the new camp was suggested. Crestline represented believers.
Optimism and expansion ended a few years later. In 1967, Ronald Reagan promised to “squeeze, slash, and trim” government costs. His 10% across-the-board budget cuts didn’t target the camps, but they impacted them significantly, lowering camp sizes and shelving new location plans.
The change wasn’t only financial. In the decades that followed, state and national authorities adopted tough-on-crime rhetoric. Criminal justice emphasizes punishment, not prevention. Reagan told the National Sheriffs’ Association in 1981, “I’m tired of folks who say we must pump so much money into a community program or implement this or that legislation or risk riots and disorder.”
In part due to tougher sentencing for drug-related and non-violent offenses, the U.S. incarceration rate climbed fourfold between the 1970s and early 2000s. The Conservation Camp Program kept going, but officials put saving money and protecting the environment ahead of taking care of the prisoners.
Perhaps the program’s longevity is due to its equivocal status in criminal justice arguments. Goodman: “The left focuses on jobs, rehabilitation, and the people’s value.” I think the right focus is on cost savings and deservingness. The appeal is universal. “
After two inmates sued, Camp Rainbow added female crews in 1983. Skepticism arose. One officer said “women aren’t as strong” and another said “women are more emotional” than male detainees. A study of female firefighters in similar situations disproved this. An inmate told the Times that this is one of the best opportunities for women to prove themselves.
Due to initiatives to reduce the prison population under Governor Gavin Newsom and the early release of nonviolent prisoners when COVID-19 hit, California’s inmate firefighter ranks have dropped in recent years. In 2011, more than 4,000 inmates participated; now there are 1,600. Eight camps were combined for budgetary reasons in 2020.
Based on more than 75 years of history and climatic and demographic constraints, inmate firemen will remain a mainstay of California’s firefighting service.
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