As wildfires rage across California each year, exhausted firefighters call for reinforcements wherever they can find them, even as far away as Australia.
Yet one local resource is rarely used: thousands of experienced firefighters who have proven themselves in prison. According to an Associated Press review, two state programs designed to professionally hire more former inmate firefighters have barely made a dent, with a $30 million effort for just over 100 firefighters, a little more than a third of registered prisoners.
Dressed in distinctive orange uniforms, inmate crews protect multimillion-dollar homes for a few dollars a day by cutting brush and trees with chainsaws and scraping dirt to create barriers they hope will stop flames.
Once released from prison, however, ex-convicts find it difficult to get professional jobs because of their criminal records, despite an 18-month first national law designed to ease their way and 4 years of training. program that cost taxpayers at least $180,000 per graduate.
“It’s absolutely an untapped pool of talent,” said Geneviève Rimer, who works with ex-convicts trying to clear their records. “Thousands of people come back from California fire camps every year. They have already been trained. They want to go out and put their lives on the line to ensure public safety.
California isn’t alone in needing seasoned smoke eaters, but the nation’s most populous state faces different challenges than other less populated western regions. A wildfire that nearly leveled the town of Paradise at the foot of the Sierra Nevada nearly four years ago, for example, was the nation’s deadliest wildfire in nearly a century, killing 85 people.
The U.S. Forest Service is short about 1,200 firefighters, including 500 in California, and the Department of the Interior is short about 450 firefighters, including 150 in California, two of the state’s top elected officials said. American senses Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, in a recent letter to Biden administration officials.
Other Western states are grappling with the problem. Nevada is considering a program like Arizona’s “Phoenix Crew,” which began in 2017 and provides most former inmate firefighters a pipeline to firefighting jobs.
Governor Gavin Newsom signed California legislation in 2020 allowing former inmates to seek to withdraw guilty pleas or have convictions overturned. A judge can then dismiss the charges. Former inmates convicted of murder, kidnapping, arson, escape and sex offenses are excluded.
Since the law took effect, the nonprofit Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, started by two former inmate firefighters, has worked with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles to help ex-inmates clear their files and to be hired.
Yet they were only able to file 34 petitions, and only 12 had their records erased in what the program warns “can be a long and cumbersome process”.
Ashleigh Dennis is one of at least three attorneys filing motions to strike through the Oakland-based advocacy group Root & Rebound. Similarly, she was only able to file 23 requests, 14 of which were granted.
Among other hurdles, applicants must show a judge proof that they have been pardoned, and expungement only applies to crimes for which they were incarcerated while working on fire crews. Many people have unrelated convictions that need to be expunged separately.
It’s been a learning curve in educating judges on the law and getting the corrections department to fast-track certification in court that inmates served as firefighters, said Dennis and one of his clients, Phi Le. He went to court in October and his record was expunged in January.
Da’Ton Harris Jr.’s case was finally expunged in August, about 18 months after the process began.
“I’m here, a public servant, risking my life every day to try to improve my community,” Harris said. “I don’t think it’s a smooth transaction at all.”
Despite his record, Harris secured firefighting jobs with the U.S. Forest Service, state firefighting agency Cal Fire, and the Forestry & Fire Recruitment Program.
But like Le, his advancement was limited because his criminal record made him ineligible for certification as an emergency medical technician, a hurdle that disappeared with the radiation. Outside of temporary jobs with federal and state firefighting agencies, most fire departments require applicants to be licensed paramedics — a certification the state prohibits some felons from getting because the job s accompanied by access to narcotics and sharp objects.
Rimer, director of support services for the Forestry & Fire Recruitment Program, said California should automatically expunge the records of eligible ex-convicts, just as it does those convicted of crimes related to obsolete marijuana. And that should include their entire criminal record, she said.
“I think that’s spearheaded opportunities for people, but I don’t think it’s been enough,” she said of the debarment law.
The author of the law, Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino, has been scrambling ever since to find out how many former inmates she has helped. She said many former inmates had contacted her office to praise the “shattering impact of the legislation”.
The corrections department notifies eligible inmates of the law but does not track expungements, department spokeswoman Tessa Outhyse said. Cal Fire, the judiciary and the state Department of Justice also could not say how many had their records expunged.
In another effort, California in 2018 created a training program to help ex-convicts get hired professionally.
The 18-month program is run by Cal Fire, the California Conservation Corps, the state Department of Corrections, and the nonprofit Ventura Training Center Anti-Recidivist Coalition in northwest Los Angeles. Members of the Conservation Corps are also eligible. Ex-inmates convicted of arson or sexual offenses are excluded.
Participants spend six months on life skills and firefighter training and the following year fighting or preventing fires and performing other community service, for which they are paid $1,905 per month. The center has four fire teams with 60 participants.
In four years, the program has cost more than $29.5 million, but has only 106 graduates.
Almost all have found professional employment: 98 are with Cal Fire and three with other agencies, including the Orange County Fire Authority and the US Forest Service, according to corrections officials. Cal Fire provided slightly different numbers.
But they are the luckiest of the 277 who have participated since the program’s inception. Another 111 participants, or 40%, left before completing the program, Outhyse said.
Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and destructive, so the shortage comes at a time when demand for wildfire crews is increasing.
And the state is turning more to professional wildland firefighters, largely because inmate crews are less available after voters shortened criminal sentences and authorities released thousands of lower-level inmates early to prevent coronavirus infections.
As of August, about 1,670 inmates are in fire camps, including staff like cooks and launderers, down about 40% from August 2019. The corrections department was slated for 152 crews this year, but only deployed 51, each with around 15–18 firefighters.
With fewer inmate teams, California is turning more to other agencies. The Conservation Corps is tasked with filling 30 crews, Cal Fire 26 and the California National Guard 14.
The state is also creating what officials have called the first all-hazards firefighter response team led by a state National Guard. Fire trucks can respond to both forest fires and urban fires.
“We’ve recognized for a few years now that due to early release, due to COVID, a number of other reasons, we have to do something,” said Battalion Commander Issac Sanchez, a Cal Fire spokesperson.
Gabe Stern contributed to this story from Reno, Nevada. Stern is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Stern on Twitter @gabestern326.