Imagine putting your life on the line to protect life and property from wildfires and only being paid $1 per hour to do so. That is life for inmates and youth working in fire camps. The California Department of Corrections Fire Fighters are fighting one of the largest and most destructive fires in California’s history and are being paid less than minimum wage. The 2,000 adult inmates and 58 youth are essentially working for free as fires rage across California.
Here is what you should know about these men and women:
- Inmate firefighters date back to World War II
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the history of inmate firefighters goes back to World War II. When the workforce for CAL FIRE was depleted during the war, the CDCR provided a workforce. Inmates occupied temporary camps to augment the number of firefighters.
- An average year yields 3 million hours in emergency response work
For an average year, the CDCR claims that the program provides about 3 million hours responding to fires and other emergencies and 7 million hours in community service projects. Their services save California taxpayers about $100 million.
The responsibilities of those in the camps can range from clearing firebreaks, restoring historical structures, maintaining parks, sandbagging and flood protection, reforestation, and clearing fallen trees and debris.
- Inmates must earn the right to work in these camps and certain crimes make you ineligible for the program
Inmates must have non-violent behavior and conformance to rules while they are incarcerated.
The conservation camps only take minimum-custody inmates as volunteers,and those volunteers are screened and medically cleared on a case by case basis before being accepted into the program.
They are screened on physical, emotional, and intellectual aptitudes, and potential crew members are evaluated twice for physical fitness training by a custodial agency and by CAL FIRE.
No one is involuntarily assigned to a fire camp. Disqualifiers include inmates who have committed arson, rape, or sex offenses, as well as those with active warrants, medical issues, or whose cases are of high notoriety.
- Some Inmate firefighters could still be employed by CAL FIRE
It is possible for an inmate firefighter to be employed by Cal Fire, even with a felony conviction or incarceration. According to Powell, a felony conviction or incarceration does not necessarily disqualify someone for employment with CAL FIRE.
A new program was approved this year that is implementing a Firefighter Training and Certification Program for participants at the Ventura Training center, located at Ventura Conservation Camp.
Trainees will be former offenders on parole who have recently been part of a trained firefighting workforce housed in fire camps operated by CAL FIRE and CDCR.
VTC will provide advanced firefighter training, certifications and job readiness support to create a pathway for former offenders to compete for entry-level firefighting jobs with state, federal and local agencies.
- Inmates firefighters get paid for their labor with wages and credits
Inmate firefighters have an average pay of $2 per day, but, while fighting fires, inmates earn $1 per hour.
The money earned by inmates at camps like Ventura Conservation Camp #46 is placed in a trust account for their use. They can send money home or save it until they are released to parole.
Inmates can also earn time off their sentence by working in the fire camps.
Two days of credit for every day of incarceration (or 66.6%) are awarded to nonviolent offenders serving in fire camps, after they have successfully completed the requisite physical fitness training and firefighting training to be assigned as a firefighter to a Department of Forestry and Fire Protection fire camp or as a firefighter at a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation firehouse.
Offenders in the fire camps that are not firefighters earn one day of credit for every day of incarceration for good behavior.
The cost and destruction resulting from wildfires are astronomical, but it is lessened by the men and women who work on fire camps as inmates and youth. As a society, we owe a debt of gratitude to these men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to stop the spread of wildfires and minimize their damage. These heroes should be granted higher pay and benefits, and states and counties should also consider giving these youths and inmates more credit for time served.