For years California, Florida, Oregon, Washington, and other states have relied on incarcerated men and women to fight wildfires. They are trained to perform grueling work while earning just a few dollars, sometimes as little as $2 a day.
Incarcerated workers who serve as volunteer firefighters help contain and combat blazes as wildfires have become more frequent and intense while the U.S. Forest Service has struggled with staffing shortages due in part to low pay. Now a nonprofit group – with help from foundations and others – is helping incarcerated people who have been trained as firefighters secure careers in the profession once they leave prison.
Navigating the hurdles to a steady firefighting job isn’t easy. Brandon Smith knows those challenges firsthand. In 2012, he was at Wasco State Prison, near Bakersfield, Calif., about eight months into his sentence for nonviolent charges, when his prison counselor suggested he move to a fire camp. He would be able to live there and learn to fight fires while earning the same certifications as California’s seasonal firefighters.
At Bautista Conservation Camp in Riverside County, Smith came to love firefighting. It was one of the first times he was out in nature, and he was good at what he did. He became the leader of his hand crew, wielding a chainsaw at the front of a team that cut back flammable brush and trees to create perimeters that contain fires.
“When you’re incarcerated, you have this stigma of being a public nuisance, but being a firefighter provided an opportunity for me to give back to the community and also give myself a sense of pride,” Smith said. “It was something that I wanted to continue as a way of giving back to the community once I came home.”
But after completing his sentence in 2014, the pathway to a firefighting job wasn’t clear. The certifications he received while incarcerated didn’t count, and he couldn’t even apply for some positions due to his criminal record.
Together, Smith and Royal Ramey, who became a close friend in the fire camp, enrolled in a state-run fire academy to re-earn their required certifications. The classes were familiar — they had been through this before — and they graduated as the top two in their class.
Betty Ashe, a now-retired U.S. Forest Service battalion chief, helped them get their first jobs fighting the Lake Fire, which burned more than 31,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest in 2015. They both spent several years as wildland firefighters.
Smith and Ramey understood how a lack of access to information or networks could hold their peers back, so they began helping other incarcerated and previously imprisoned firefighters find their way. The two eventually founded the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program and now work there full time.
The nonprofit offers training so participants can get the credentials they need for some entry-level state, federal, or private firefighting jobs. Participants spend time in the classroom and in the field doing fire-prevention work such as thinning forests on public lands and removing flammable vegetation from around people’s homes. Participants earn $17.50 an hour while they train.
A nearly $500,000 grant from the state of California helped the organization grow from a strictly volunteer effort. And in recent years, foundations began taking notice. Early supporters included Google.org, which provided $500,000. Venture-philanthropy organization New Profit gave $40,000, and the Worker’s Lab, which supports efforts to make workers more safe and secure, granted $150,000.
Current foundation donors include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which gave $304,000; the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which gave $120,000; and the JM Kaplan Fund, which gave $175,000. This year the James Irvine Foundation presented Smith and Ramey with its Leadership Award, which came with a $250,000 prize.
“We really need people who are trained and who can help fight these wildfires,” said Charles Fields, vice president of program implementation at the Irvine Foundation. “At the same time, we have a lot of folks who are coming out of jails and prisons and who are looking for opportunities to become productive citizens in our society. It’s not easy to get back on your feet and find a job with the skills that are going to pay a living wage.”
The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program takes those two important challenges and brings them together, Fields said.
The nonprofit now has a $3.4 million budget and has trained more than 3,000 people and helped more than 140 get jobs.
Through a partnership with the University of Southern California, students who are studying to get master’s degrees in social work serve as case managers to help trainees find housing, get driver’s licenses, and access mental-health services, if needed.
In addition, the nonprofit works with other partners to help participants navigate the court system. In 2020, California passed a law that allows formerly incarcerated firefighters to petition the courts to expunge their convictions upon release. If they win approval, they don’t have to wait until their parole ends to apply for jobs within municipal and county fire departments or to pursue the EMT credentials required of most full-time, higher-paying firefighting positions.
With the help of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the fire recruitment program has successfully filed 38 petitions, 12 of which have been granted so far, and 21 of which are pending.
The fire training organization plans to continue expanding its work. A Bay Area grant maker, Tipping Point Community, provided $150,000 to help the Los Angeles-based group expand to Oakland, where it will soon begin working with fire-camp alumni who return to the Bay Area. And last year, it launched the Buffalo Fire Crew, a private nonprofit firefighting group that includes many graduates of the training program.
“Our program is here to help people … make that 180-degree transition,” Smith says. “To go out and truly be public servants; to go out and prove to the community that my past does not define me.”
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