For years, California, Florida, Oregon, Washington and other states have relied on male and female prisoners to fight wildfires. They…
For years, California, Florida, Oregon, Washington and other states have relied on male and female prisoners to fight wildfires. They are taught to do grueling work, earning only a few dollars, sometimes only 2 dollars a day.
Volunteer firefighters are helping to contain and fight fires as forest fires become more frequent and intense, and the U.S. Forest Service has struggled with staff shortages in part because of low pay. Now a nonprofit group – with the help of foundations and others – is helping inmates who have been trained as firefighters to secure careers in the profession after their release from prison.
Overcoming obstacles to constant work on firefighting is not easy. Brendan Smith knows these issues by hearsay. In 2012, he was in a Vasco State prison, near Bakersfield, California, about eight months after his imprisonment for nonviolent charges when his prison adviser suggested he move to a fire camp. He will be able to live there and learn how to fight fires by getting the same certifications as seasonal firefighters in California.
At the Bautista Conservation Camp in Riverside County, Smith fell in love with 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 brigade, owning a chainsaw in front of a team that cut flammable bushes and trees to create perimeters that contain fires.
“When you’re in jail, you have a stigma that you’re hindering the public, but being a firefighter, I give the opportunity to give back to the public as well as give myself a sense of pride,” Smith said. “It was something I wanted to continue to give back to society as soon as I got home.”
But after serving his sentence in 2014, the path to work for firefighters was not clear. The certificates he received in prison were not taken into account, and he could not even apply for some positions due to a criminal record.
Together, Smith and Royal Remy, who became close friends at the fire camp, entered the state fire academy to re-obtain the necessary certificates. The classes were familiar – they had been through it before – and they graduated as the top two in their class.
Betty Ash, now a retired U.S. Forest Service battalion chief, helped them get their first job fighting a lake fire that in 2015 burned more than 31,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest. They both spent several years as firefighters.
Smith and Remy realized how lack of access to information or networks could deter their peers, so they began helping other inmates and formerly inmate firefighters find their way. Eventually they founded the Forestry and Firefighting Selection Program and now work there full time.
The nonprofit offers training so participants can get the credentials they need for some public, federal, or private firefighting vacancies. Participants spend time in classrooms and in the field, performing firefighting work such as thinning forests on public lands and removing flammable vegetation around people’s homes. During training, participants earn $ 17.50 per hour.
A grant of nearly $ 500,000 from the state of California has helped the organization grow through purely volunteer efforts. And in recent years, funds have begun to notice. The first supporters included Google.org, which gave $ 500,000. Venture philanthropic organization New Profit has donated $ 40,000, and Worker’s Lab, which supports efforts to make workers safer and more secure, has donated $ 150,000.
Current fund donors include the National Fish and Wildlife Fund, which has allocated $ 304,000; Chan Zuckerberg’s $ 120,000 initiative; and the J. Foundation. M. Kaplan, who gave $ 175,000. This year, the James Irwin Foundation presented Smith and Rami with a $ 250,000 leadership award.
“We really need people who are prepared and who can help fight these forest fires,” said Charles Fields, vice president of the Irwin Foundation program. “At the same time, we have a lot of people coming out of prisons and jails and looking for opportunities to become effective citizens in our society. It is not easy to get on your feet and find a job with the skills that allow you to pay the subsistence level.
The forestry and fire hiring program takes these two important issues together and brings them together, Fields said.
The nonprofit’s budget is $ 3.4 million, it has trained more than 3,000 people and helped more than 140 find employment.
Through partnerships with the University of Southern California, students pursuing a master’s degree in social work serve as case managers to help students find housing, obtain driver’s licenses, and access mental health services when needed.
In addition, the nonprofit works with other partners to help participants navigate the judiciary. In 2020, California passed a law that allows previously detained firefighters to apply to the court to have their convictions revoked after release. If they receive approval, they don’t need to wait until their parole ends to apply for jobs in municipal and county fire departments or get the EMT credentials required for most full-time, high-paying firefighter positions.
With the help of the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation, the hiring program has successfully filed 38 applications, 12 of which have been granted so far and 21 of which are pending.
The fire training organization plans to further expand its work. The Tipping Point community, which creates grants in the Bay Area, has donated $ 150,000 to help the Los Angeles group expand to Auckland, where it will soon begin working with fire camp alumni returning to the Bay Area. And last year he launched Buffalo Fire Crew, a private nonprofit firefighting group that includes many training program graduates.
“Our program is here to help people … make this 180-degree transition,” Smith says. “To go out and really be civil servants; to go out and prove to society that my past doesn’t define me ”.
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