Lena I. Jackson
Lena I. Jackson
The Dixie Fire, now the second-largest in California history, continues to burn northern parts of the state. It comes as California faces a shortage of firefighters, a scenario that's bringing new attention to a critical firefighting resource: prison inmates. William Brangham reports for our ongoing series, "Searching for Justice."
As the Dixie Fire continues burning, California faces a shortage of firefighters. As I discovered on a recent trip, it's revealing a critical resource, prison inmates. This report is part of our series, "Searching for Justice".
In the hills of the San Bernardino National Forest, the firefighters begin their ascent. There are only three men on today's arduous journey. But, in this tinderbox of a state, with land scorched by drought, every set of hands makes a difference.
They're clearing out the brush and branches that could be fuel for the next wildfire. The team is led by Royal Ramey. He co-founded a group called the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, or FFRP.
They're going to be at those markers.
It trains formerly-incarcerated men and women to become professional firefighters. We spoke with Ramey — who spent more than four years in prison for a non-violent offense — at a property he was surveying for fire hazards.
Is there something about people who were formerly incarcerated that make good firefighters?
People that been incarcerated before understand what it is to really embrace the suck, right? Like, that's the biggest–
You've lived hardship.
Right. It's constant pressure. And the biggest thing in the fire service is dealing with pressure, dealing with stress.
For Ramey, and many of those involved with his group, firefighting began when they were locked up, in what California calls conservation fire camps. There are dozens of them across the state, where low-risk inmates can volunteer and receive weeks of training.
They're out there, just being firefighters.
Author Jaime Lowe recently wrote breathing fire, a book about California's inmate firefighters, and in particular, the women doing this work.
They're the crews that are right on the ground, creating containment lines. They are in the communities, clearing brush for fire roads. And when there are fires, they're doing the work of a regular fire crew.
Inmates are usually paid just a few dollars a day. Before the pandemic, there were around 3,000 people in the camps, and they've made up about a third of the state's firefighting force.
It is physically and mentally taxing in a way that I think no one will ever understand, unless you're actually inside of those fires. And these are the people that we're relying on to save the state of California– and most of the Western states, actually.
FFRP's other co-founder, Brandon Smith, worked at a camp in southern California. He served two and a half years for nonviolent charges.
When you were incarcerated and someone first approached you and said, hey, there's this thing called Fire Camp where you can learn these skills and maybe go out and fight fires, what was your first reaction to that?
Straight up, no.
When my mom asked me what I wanted to do when I was a child, I said, I don't know, but I do not want to be a firefighter.
I've– no, I'm serious.
But, when Smith found out he'd be stationed closer to home, that he wouldn't be in a cell, he'd be eating better, and paid more, he signed up.
I was in fire camp for about three months before I caught my first fire. We got out there, and it was literally like the "Avengers" movie. I swear.
It was like you got people flying, you got all these different agencies, you got all these people doing all this kind of work. And you hop out of the fire truck and your adrenaline pumps and it's like, let's go. And it was at that time I wasn't scared of nothing anymore. And I'm hooked.
Smith remembers coming back from fighting fires and seeing grateful crowds with "thank you" signs and kids waving flags. And so, when he was released in 2014, he assumed he'd be able to put his years of experience to use.
I was coming home, going to every fire station, like, hey, can I — can you pick me up? Can you hire me? Can you hire me?
They're like, no, no, no. Sorry, you missed this. You don't qualify. I had no understanding of what I qualified for and what I didn't.
No matter your training, it can be hard to get professional firefighting jobs if you've got a criminal record. Many departments require full emergency medical technician certification, which, by state law, a lot of felons can't access.
But last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law to help the formerly- incarcerated jump those hurdles. It allows ex-fire-camp inmates to petition to have their records expunged after they're released, which opens the door to that EMT certification. But not everyone likes the change. The head of the union that represents California Fire Firefighters opposes the law, saying that while the union believes in second chances, an inmates' participation in fire camps, quote, doesn't mean they're rehabilitated.
If they're trying to expunge their record, they're trying to move forward as a firefighter. They're not trying to expunge their record to become a kingpin.
One of FFRP's graduates is Brandin Smith– no relation to the other Brandon. He did about three years at Fire Camp during a sentence for gun charges. Now, this husband and father of four works for FFRP and the U.S. Forest Service. He says he eats, sleeps and breathes firefighting.
It's a lifestyle. Every little thing that you do to your body, your mind — everything counts. So, if any of these people are spending enough time and dedication to develop their brain and their bodies to do this type of job, to stop such disasters, let them. Support them.
Despite the roadblocks, FFRP has helped more than 125 people get jobs in different fire services.
You say that we need firefighters. You're saying we need more firefighters, so if these — these folks, men and women, have the opportunity to, you know, get — get them gain employment they already got the skills, the tools, they were trained by the state.
And now, there's no pathway, no, you're a failure, we don't want you. We want you when we want you. We want you when it's convenient for us, right? And that's — that's not fair.
Now, the organization is launching its own 20-person crew to fight fires across the West. They call themselves the Buffalos, an homage to the African American troops known as the buffalo soldiers who fought in the U.S. Army and saved lives during raging wildfires in the 1900s.
Ramey says it's inspiration to beat the odds, and to fight for a second chance.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Southern California.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Sam Lane is reporter/producer in PBS NewsHour's segment unit.
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