Reminder: One-Third Of Firefighters In The Wildfires Are Inmates

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Image: Daria Devyatkina via Flickr

We’re watching in helpless horror as the Tahoe Basin is enveloped with wildfires. This leads us to forget that there are currently 18 wildfires burning across California, including the Dixie Fire — which has been burning for more than a month — and is still not even halfway contained.

We also tend to forget another inconvenient matter of cruelty: one-third of the firefighters battling the wildfires are prison inmates, getting paid peanuts to do some of the most dangerous tasks of the firefighting force. 

“More than 3,700 men and women—and even some juvenile offenders—now voluntarily serve on the [firefighter] force,” the Atlantic wrote in 2017. “Collectively, they make up roughly a third of the state’s wildfire-fighting personnel, and work an average of 10 million hours each year responding to fires and other emergencies and handling community-service projects like park maintenance, reforestation, and fire and flood protection.”

Inmates are also tasked with the more dangerous front-line work of cutting “firebreaks,” or trenches of combustible brush whose clearing hopes to stop or alter the spread of the fire. For this, they’re typically paid $2-$5 a day, with a $1 or $2 “bonus” for the hours they are on the immediate frontlines of the fire. This saves California taxpayers at least $100 million a year, but… seems pretty exploitive?

The author of that Atlantic article, Jaime Lowe, just did a 2021 update on inmate firefighters.  The big development since 2017 is that Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law called AB 2147 that finally allows inmate firefighters to request their criminal records be expunged after their release, so they can become actual full-fledged firefighters. The expungement is not automatic, they still have to petition a judge. So it kind of comes down to which judge they get, what mood the judge is in that day, and how big of an asshole that jurisdiction’s district attorney is.

But the exploitiveness of this system is still otherwise fully intact. “Imagine if, instead of being part of a prison camp, those who qualified were part of an apprenticeship that paid competitive wages, one that led to jobs,” Lowe writes. “It could be a forestry camp run through the California Conservation Corps and Cal Fire, eliminating the presence of correctional officers altogether. Imagine if these fire camps included social services.”

ACLU National Prison Project director David Fathi makes an excellent point, telling the Atlantic, ‘‘I think one important question to ask is, if these people are safe to be out and about and carrying axes and chainsaws, maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.’’

To learn more about inmate firefighters and the reality they face, Lowe’s new book BREATHING FIRE: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires chronicles the more than 200 women who are California inmate firefighters. The documentary Fireboys, which profiles incarcerated teens and juveniles on the firefighting force, is now streaming on Amazon Prime.  


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Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.