Already faced with a dwindling federal workforce, California is preparing to shut down one of its main training facilities for inmate firefighters as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to reduce the state’s prison population.
The California Correctional Center in Lassen County, located near two national forests in the northeastern part of the state, is slated to close in June 2022 and its fire training program relocated nearly five hours south to the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.
Closing the 58-year-old prison is an extension of Newsom’s larger push to end mass incarceration, but community members and current firefighters worry that reducing the number of inmate firefighters could compromise the state’s ability to fight increasingly deadly wildfires.
“We are in desperate need of these programs,” said Brandon Dunham, a former United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management firefighter who founded and hosts a podcast for wildland firefighters called “The Anchor Point Podcast.” “We’re already short-staffed and have dismal numbers. They need us and we need them.”
Inmate firefighters typically operate in crews of around 14 people under the direction of a fire captain and often focus on reinforcing containment lines. Armed with shovels and pickaxes, they fight fires like lumberjacks: digging holes, chopping wood, clearing brush and providing essential support for state and federal firefighters.
For decades the California Correctional Center has been an important hub for inmate fire programs in Northern California, providing thousands of high-paying jobs in a rural and remote part of the state and offering fire training at higher elevations.
“The inmate crews are one of the largest assets Northern California has. Literally,” said Lassen County Supervisor Gary Bridges.
Last year, Bridges watched as inmate crews were deployed to help contain the North Complex Fire, which was ignited in August by a series of lightning strikes and merged with smaller fires over the course of several weeks. One of those smaller fires, the Sheep Fire, burned nearly 30,000 acres near the town of Susanville, which houses the correctional facility.
“We would have lost the whole mountain,” if the inmate crews had not been on standby, Bridges said.
Originally built in 1963, the California Correctional Center trains inmate firefighters who staff 14 firefighting camps in Northern California. The number of eligible inmates has dwindled in recent years because of changes to state law and the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted state officials to call for the early release of many nonviolent offenders.
During the height of last year’s fire season, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, which oversees the fire training programs, had roughly half the number of expected inmate fire crews after Covid-19 swept through prisons. As a result, only 90 of the 192 inmate crews were available to fight fires and conduct mitigation efforts.
In October, state officials announced the closure of eight inmate firefighting camps, four of them in Northern California, and the consolidation of inmates into 35 remaining camps. The change allowed Cal Fire and the corrections department to be “more efficient and better staffed for response to wildfires, other emergencies, and engagement in conservation-related work,” the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in an announcement.
“While these decisions are never easy, they are opening the door for the department to increase efficiencies as California continues to focus on reentry and rehabilitation efforts,” corrections department Secretary Kathleen Allison said in a statement.
As California and the West heads deeper into drought, experts predict this summer could bring another onslaught of deadly and destructive wildfires across the region. The increased danger comes at a time when federal firefighters, classified as “forestry technicians” by the Forest Service, are faced with a shrinking and exhausted workforce. Among the most skilled and experienced teams, colloquially known as hotshots, only 70 percent of crews are expected to be fully staffed this year, according to the union that represents federal firefighters.
State and municipal departments are beefing up their crews in anticipation of a heightened fire threat, and California lawmakers are scrambling to fund fire suppression and prevention efforts. Recently, Newsom proposed pouring $2 billion into the state’s fire response, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced several bills in Congress to increase preparedness.
Activists have long complained that California relies too heavily on inmate firefighters, who receive $1 an hour while fighting a fire compared to a professional firefighter, who can earn $40,000 or more in their first year.
Newsom, in an attempt to address some of the issues surrounding inmate fire crews, signed a bill in September to accelerate the process for expunging the felony records of formerly incarcerated volunteer firefighters. The new law was designed to make it easier for them to earn an emergency medical technician certification, the first step in becoming a professional firefighter in most cities and counties.
“At the end of the day, they do amazing work,” Dunham said, adding that the training programs are intrinsically fraught with controversy.
“Can it be looked at as some form of indentured servitude or slave labor? Yes, it could be,” he said. “However, these programs are absolutely crucial to the success of a national fire program.”
Over the years, Dunham has worked with at least two dozen current or former inmate firefighters, some of whom went on to become captains and supervisors in state and federal agencies. He described the path as a “turnkey” where inmates learn lifelong skills and a strong work ethic that can quickly translate into careers when they are released from prison.
Armando Perez, a former gang member who is now part of an elite hotshot crew in the Eldorado National Forest, said his inmate training ultimately led to a new life of service.
“I felt shame and remorse for the things I had done in the past,” he said. “If the inmate program had not been there, I don’t know where I would have ended up.”
Originally from the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, Perez cycled in and out juvenile detention centers before landing in an adult prison for armed robbery when he was 19 years old. He was initially attracted to the fire program because it allowed him to spend time in the fresh air instead of being locked behind four walls and because inmate firefighters are given more visitation time with their families.
After undergoing an intensive vetting process, Perez was accepted into an inmate training program in Jamestown and eventually joined the Forest Service after being released from prison. He now mentors other former inmates who want to become firefighters and worries that reducing these programs could ultimately boost recidivism.
“It’s an opportunity to better yourself,” he said. “I honestly feel that if the programs go away, you’re going to have a whole lot of people going back to their bad ways.”
Another former inmate firefighter who is now a captain with Cal Fire in Northern California said joining the training program in Jamestown offered him a shot at “redemption” and opened the door to his now-20-year career with the state agency.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but it was redemption,” said the fire captain, who wished to remain anonymous. “I had this moral clock ticking and I knew I was making bad decisions and I carried around a tremendous source of guilt.”
When he joined Cal Fire after finishing parole, a shroud was lifted.
“My mom was proud of me again,” he said. “That felt really good.”