My mother peered out the window of the airplane, surveying the California coastline many thousands of feet below her. Commanding her view of the airscape was a single, billowing, plume of smoke, competing with the plane for dominion of the sky. The plume, churning with alternating streaks of black and auburn smoke, might have led most to presume that a volcano had erupted along the Central Coast of California. But this was no volcano. This was Jesusita, an enormous brushfire, and it was trying to swallow Santa Barbara.
My mother turned to the passenger sitting beside her in the plane and said, “Look. My son is down there.”
Far below, cruising up the coastline on Highway 1, I was sitting in the back of a firefighter crew carrying vehicle (CCV) en route to Santa Barbara. I was a member of a 12-man, Type 1 wildland firefighting crew within the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
But this was no ordinary fire crew and we weren’t riding in an ordinary CCV. You see, I was in prison. The men in my crew were also in prison. And, even though our CCV was shiny and red like a fire engine, it was, for all intents and purposes, a prisoner transport bus. It just so happened that we were getting transported to a fire. The Jesusita Fire.
Eleven men, myself included, sat in the back of CCV, wearing our fire-resistant Nomex and nervously anticipating the danger ahead of us. We couldn’t yet see the column of smoke rising into the atmosphere, but we knew it was close. The sky was beginning to turn a beige, earthy color, there was an ethereal layer of smoke hovering just a few feet above the Pacific Ocean on the left side of the CCV, and the characteristic smell of incinerated brush pervaded our bus.
Some of us listened to music on our headphones. Some of us smoked cigarettes. Some of us were talking to friends or family on cell phones. The rest of us stared out of the windows, watching the free world pass us by.
The CCV rounded an escarpment along the coast and Jesusita revealed herself to us. Her plume rose majestically into the air and disappeared into the cloud cover of her own making. The sky above Santa Barbara was a deep brown and the sun had transformed into a blood-red orb, barely visible through the smoke. Bright orange fingers of fire, some of them hundreds of feet tall, danced along the top of the mountains above the city. This was a serious fire.
“Alright, boys,” somebody in the CCV said. “We need to be careful. This shit’s real.”
Yes, it was real. As strange as it may sound, California does, in fact, use prisoners to fight the many wildfires that plague the state during the dry, summer months. There are nearly four thousand inmate firefighters in the state of California. Where there is a wildfire there is almost always an incarcerated firefighter.
Low security level prisoners, usually but not always nonviolent, have the opportunity to receive wildland firefighter training at one of the two prisons in California that offer the program, one in Susanville and the other in Jamestown. Once the Cal-Fire operated program has been completed, inmates are transferred to one of the 43 fire camps located throughout the state.
Prisoners in fire camps become part of an active fire crew where they remain on-call for emergencies and disaster relief, which may include wildfires, flooding, freeway accidents, earthquakes, and storm damage. When the crews are not actively engaged in emergency relief, they are used for other labor that befits their skill set, such as trail maintenance, brush clearance, and tree felling.
It is definitely a win-win situation for the state of California because the camp program mitigates the costs of state emergencies, which are often extremely expensive. There are, however, incentives for the prisoners who choose to take part in the fire camp program.
Fire camps are, far and away, the most humane places to live within the entire prison system. They are often in secluded natural settings, giving prisoners the opportunity to live in an environment that doesn’t remotely resemble a prison. Fire camps usually house no more than 150 prisoners, making them some of the least crowded places to do time. There are no walls and sometimes there aren’t even fences. Gun towers are conspicuously absent in fire camps and the guards aren’t even armed.
Camps have good meals, more nutritious and higher in calorie content than those served in the chow hall behind the walls. Hobby shops give camp inmates the opportunity to do woodworking, metalsmithing, and painting. Fire camps have weight piles, an amenity removed from state prisons many years ago.
Perhaps the greatest incentives to participate in the fire camp program are the wages and the work-time credits. When I was there, prisoners made as much as $3.90 per day and $1.00 per hour when on emergency response. Contrast this with a typical job behind the walls, where an inmate might earn 7 cents per hour being a janitor. Additionally, prisoners who qualify receive increased work-time credits. For example, before getting to fire camp, my earliest release date was November of 2013, yet I ended up paroling in February 2012.
Open for debate is whether inmate labor should be used as part of the California wildland firefighter force at all and, if it is, whether prisoners should be paid a higher wage. I, for one, was happy to be there, as were most of the men that I lived with. We weren’t happy to be in prison, but we were definitely happy to live in a fire camp.
So, as I watched the flames of Jesusita lick the sky, I questioned whether it was worth it. This was my first major wildfire. Up until that moment, I had enjoyed the benefits of living in fire camp without actually having to experience the other end of the bargain. I’d had more freedom than I’d experienced in years. Better food. Amazing picnic-style visits with my family. An earlier release date. The time had come to pay up.
The sundowner winds had been pushing the conflagration down the mountainside, towards the ocean, threatening to burn through the residential neighborhoods of Santa Barbara. Some homes had already been lost by the time we arrived on scene. Our first assignment was to move into the neighborhoods and make an attempt to build a fireline around the homes which were threatened.
The CCV pulled over in one of the at-risk suburban neighborhoods. We strapped on our packs and unloaded from the bus, forming a line along a curb as we waited for orders from our LACFD Foreman, the only member of our crew who was not a prisoner.
At the head of the line was the saw team. Shady, standing proud with his trusted Stihl chainsaw, was first saw. It was his responsibility to cut the initial opening in the fireline. Second in line was his puller, Tre, who held no tool because it was his job to remove anything that Shady had cut. Third in line was Burro, the second saw, and I stood behind him as the second puller.
The next three men in line comprised the Pulaski team, whose job was to chop away the stubs that remained in the ground once the saw team had moved through. They each held a Pulaski, basically a hybrid pick-axe.
The next three men held McLeods, a tool which had a hard rake on one side and sharpened blade on the other. The McLeod team would scrape the earth after the Pulaskis, revealing the mineral soil that would constitute the fireline.
Taking up the rear of the fire team were the Dragspoon and Swamper, essentially the leaders of crew, insofar as the inmates were concerned. Quality control and pace were their primary concerns, yelling from the back any adjustments that needed to be made in construction of the fire line.
We were firefighters and we did our jobs without water. Instead of dousing the flames with water, we took away the fuel they fed. When a hand crew built a fireline, we tried to build it as close to the burn as possible, thus ensuring the least amount of fuel between the fire and the line itself. Oftentimes, this meant working immediately beside the fire, stopping it dead in its tracks. It could get hot.
With directions from the Foreman, we started moving. The gravity of the moment made it difficult to appreciate the fact that I was a prisoner, walking through a suburban neighborhood for the first time in more than four years. In fact, the thought never crossed my mind until the next day, once our first shift had been completed.
My memory of those first few hours remain in a bit of a blur. The fire had been moving in the patches of grass and brush that was between the various properties in the neighborhoods. We zig-zagged our way between homes, cutting down bushes, beating away flames, and leaving a four-foot wide dirt track in our wake.
The air was thick with smoke. I was always out of breath, a combination of exertion and poor air quality. My goggles stayed foggy with sweat. My Nomex clothing was saturated and I remember, at some point, seeing steam rise from my pant leg when I got too close to the grass burning between some houses.
An hour or so into our first assignment, we came upon a home which was on the precipice of destruction. The fire had ignited a wooden deck in the back yard and it was slowly burning its way to the house. We had but one option: to cut the deck off of the house. There was no water, after all.
Board by board, the sawyers sliced through the deck. The rest of the crew carried the debris, some of it smoldering, away from the house and into the already scorched earth above it. The home was saved, albeit with some significant damage to the patio. I’ve often wondered, since then, what the reaction of the homeowners would’ve been like. They may have pulled into their driveway, relieved to see their house in tact. And then they would’ve gone into their back yard, seen half of their deck cut away, and realized just how close they’d been to losing their home to Jesusita. I also realized that they would probably never know that it had been inmates who’d done it.
That first shift fighting the Jesusita Fire lasted 36 hours. We rested for 24 hours and then went back at it the following day. By the time we departed 5 days later, the fire was mostly under control thanks to the coordinated effort of the hundreds of firefighters who had converged on Santa Barbara. Many homes were lost, but many more were saved.
As the CCV pulled away from the city, headed back to fire camp, many of the evacuated residents of Santa Barbara stood along the road we traveled, holding signs which read “Thank you.” I don’t think they cared whether we were inmates. I’d held up my end of the bargain and, in that moment, I knew that it had been worth it.
For more information on the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation Conservation Camp program, please visit: http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/tag/inmate-firefighters/
And, for your listening enjoyment, check out this song by Steve Earle about wildland firefighting hand crews: