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From Prison Crew to Pros, the Firefighters Who Beat the Odds — And Are Giving Back

Firefighters battle the Maria Fire in California's Ventura County. The blaze ...

Photo by Noah Berger AP

Above: Firefighters battle the Maria Fire in California's Ventura County. The blaze has engulfed more than 8,000 acres.

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For years, California has relied on prisoner hand crews, typically made up of 12 to 16 trained inmates who perform grueling work, to hack through brush in oppressive heat while creating containment perimeters around a fire. But after leaving prison, many people who worked on fire prison teams couldn't find work as professional firefighters.

Aired: September 7, 2020 | Transcript

In 2012, Brandon Smith was three years into serving a prison sentence at Wasco State Prison. Smith grew up in Altadena, nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains, but says that he never really thought about firefighting.

Then a prison counselor asked if he wanted to go to fire camp.

“It was the highest paying job [in prison],” Smith said. “You'd have to be tripping to deny it.”

He wouldn’t be behind four concrete walls. His family could visit him at fire camp. The food would be better. He’d make a $1.65 a day — the rate has since increased to as much as $5 a day — plus an extra dollar an hour during fire emergencies.

For years, California has relied on prisoner hand crews, typically made up of 12 to 16 trained inmates who perform grueling work, to hack through brush in oppressive heat while creating containment perimeters around a fire.

But after leaving prison, many people who worked on fire prison teams couldn't find work as professional firefighters.

"I think that's the egregious part of this," Smith said. "You have this labor pool of people that are just sitting here and underutilized only because an issue of perception."

There are several barriers. For instance, EMT certification excludes people with certain felonies and misdemeanors. Qualified, trained inmates also can't start right away even once released because applications are due many months in advance. Once released, some parole requirements won't allow people to travel, making wildland firefighting in remote areas impossible.

Now, California Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering whether to sign a new law that would allow people who served on prison fire crews to have certain crimes removed from their record so they can qualify to become firefighters.

If signed, Assembly Bill 2147 would allow people who work on prison fire crews to:

  • have certain crimes from their record expunged
  • qualify for EMT certification
  • reduce time spent on probation, parole or supervised release
  • To be selected for a fire crew as a California inmate, you have to clear a psychological evaluation. Also, you can’t be incarcerated for something like arson, murder or rape.

In 2012, Smith qualified. He was sent to Jamestown, to a training camp in the Sierras. He still remembers his first fire, off the side of the road in Idyllwild.

“We just kicked in action once that adrenaline got in,” he said. It was a shock at first. But the more he worked at it, the more he learned to love how fighting fires made him feel.

“Being incarcerated, folks don't necessarily have the best views of you out there, right?” he said. “After finishing a 16-hour shift, riding down in the buggies, and everybody's out, holding signs like, ‘Thank you, firefighters.’ They’re talking to us as well. It helped me reconnect back with the community. It gave me a sense of purpose.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found in a 2012 study that people who serve on prison fire crews are less likely to commit another crime than the general population. However, people on prison fire teams still had a 50% recidivism rate. Smith said that being able to work would help keep people from ending up in prison again.

Royal Ramey has a similar story. He’s from Highland, just across the valley from where Smith grew up. In 2008, Ramey was sent to serve his sentence in the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, but was transferred to Mississippi. He was offered a chance to come home to California if he would fight fires.

“When I first started fighting fire, I was like I was a horrible hiker,” Ramey laughed. “I'm a great runner, I can lift weights. But when you’re actually hiking on hills, it’s a whole different animal.”

Ramey and Smith met at the Bautista Adult Conservation Fire Camp in Hemet in Riverside County. They immediately clicked. They were both “sawyers,” which means they were the ones in the front of the hand crew, holding the chainsaw. And they got kind of competitive.

“Don’t let him say he was better,” Smith said. “I was faster on the chainsaw.”

“We were passionate about the saw,” Ramey remembered. “We would talk strategies.”

That rivalry grew into a deep friendship.

“We talked about life, trying to come out the situation with a better attitude, with a better position,” Ramey said.

The Years-Long Quest to Go Pro

Smith was released eight months before Ramey, in March 2014. Both of their sentences were reduced because they worked on a fire crew.

Back in Altadena, Smith told his parole officer that he wanted to find work as a wildland firefighter. The parole officer said “good luck.”

Smith spent 18 months going to fire stations, turning in applications. But he wasn’t going far. Many positions required EMT training. Paid positions, not volunteer, were few and far between. He had to meet with his parole officer often, so he couldn’t apply for non-local positions.

When Ramey was released, he and Smith decided to pursue one last option. They enrolled in a fire academy in Victorville. It felt like starting off at square one.

There, they met a fire chief from the U.S. Forest Service.

Smith said, “I remember pulling her to the side and saying, ‘Hey ma’am, here’s the situation. I just want to be up front. I've kept trying to hop into this space I can't find a way in.’ ” The fire chief told him that if he kept working at it, she may eventually have an opening for them.

A year later, Smith and Ramey graduated at the top of their class.

It was the summer of 2015. Hundreds of fires were burning across the state. So that fire chief called them — and recruited them to fight the Lake Fire, near Big Bear. And suddenly they were fighting their first fire professionally.

“He’s running the chainsaw now, and I’m helping him out,” Smith said.

And in a moment that Brandon credits to divine intervention, he and Royal’s crew interacted with a prison fire crew — and they recognized some of the guys.

“I was talking to a fella who was like, ‘Oh, you guys are professional firefighters? Help us out!’ ” Ramey said. The incarcerated men hadn’t ever interacted with anyone like Ramey and Smith — people with their background working on a professional hand crew.

Fighting the Lake Fire opened the door to new opportunities. Ramey got a job with the Forest Service in San Bernardino. Smith, in Sonora.

For Smith, commuting to work was a struggle all on its own. “This dude didn't even have a car!” Ramey said. “He didn’t let nothing stop him. One of the biggest things that me and Brandon, we both hold deep in our souls is: Don’t make excuses for yourself.”

Smith was coordinating rides with coworkers to fight fires — sometimes traveling hours each way. And on top of that, he was volunteering: going to prison fire camps and talking to incarcerated firefighters about how to find jobs in the Forest Service.

Clearing the Way for Others

Smith and Ramey made it as professional firefighters through their tenacity, perseverance and luck. But they say they don’t want other people in their position to go through what they did, without structural support.

In 2015, Smith and Ramey founded a nonprofit organization called The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program.

They partner with local governments like Los Angeles County to give paid on-the-job training for people who were formerly incarcerated, and help with state firefighting applications.

Since 2015, they’ve helped more than 100 people find work in the Forest Service. Folks who graduated from their program are fighting the fires across California as engineers, leading crews, flying helicopters.

But Ramey, Smith and the people they help through their nonprofit persevered through a system that put them in potentially life-threatening situations for below minimum wage.

“As a country, we have a heavy dependence on the use of incarcerated people as laborers,” Smith said.

Smith emphasized that California passing AB 2147 is a step in the right direction.

But, of course, it’s just a step. Smith said the state is reliant on prison retention to handle the ever-raging wildfire season. He wants the state to create a new pipeline, one for former inmates to get a living wage on the fire lines.

“We get the same training, more experience than the firefighters out here,” Smith said. “But when folks come home from prison or come home from these fire camps, they're not able to utilize the skills that they’ve learned.”

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