From Prison Crew to Pros, the Firefighters Who Beat the Odds — And Are Giving Back
Speaker 1: 00:00 For decades, prison fire crews have been battling California's wildfires, risking their lives for a few dollars a day. Once they get out, it can be a challenge, finding a job, fighting fires as a professional. But this month, the California legislature passed a bill that would allow incarcerated people who sign up for prison, fire crews to have some crimes expunged from their records, making it easier for them to get a job on the outside area. The Markowitz has a story about two friends who met at a prison fire cramp, whose dream was to reinvent themselves and figure out a way to help other former inmates get firefighting jobs too. Brandon Smith is from a city nestled in the San Gabriel mountains called Altadena Speaker 2: 00:41 Yard and stuff is in the mountains. I've seen fires right all my life, but I never knew about wild land firefighter. Speaker 1: 00:48 He remembers watching the 1991 firefighting movie backdraft as a kid, and it did not leave a good impression. Speaker 2: 00:56 Brian breeds in eights. I remember being a child, you know, watching backdraft and telling my mom like a firefighter is not something that I wanted to do. Speaker 1: 01:08 As a young adult, Brandon got addicted to drugs and ended up at Wasco state prison. When he was 22, he wanted to keep his head down. Hopefully get a sentence reduced three years in his prison, counselor approached him and asked if he wanted to fight fires. Speaker 2: 01:23 So at first I said, no, but like I had talked to some folks and I realized it was going to be like a way better situation for me, especially like while incarcerated, Speaker 1: 01:32 He wouldn't be behind for concrete walls. His family could visit him at fire camp. The food would be better. He'd make a dollar 65 a day plus an extra dollar an hour during fire emergencies. Speaker 2: 01:45 It was the highest paying job. So you'd have to be like tripping to deny it, you know? And so I just took a chance Speaker 1: 01:55 To get on a fire crew. As a California inmate, you have to clear a psychological evaluation. You can't be in for something like arson murder or rape Brandon qualified. And he was sent to a training camp in the Sierra. He still remembers his first fire. Speaker 2: 02:10 We just kicked into action. Once that adrenaline got in, like we were working with the firefighters going to go put the fire. Speaker 1: 02:15 He says it was a shock, but the more he worked at it, the more he learned to love how fighting fires made him feel, Speaker 2: 02:22 Being incarcerated. Folks, folks don't necessarily have the best views of you out there, right after finishing a 16 hour shift. Or I like riding down in the buggies and everybody's out like saying signs, like, thank you, firefighters, thank you. Right? And they're talking to us as well. It helped me to like reconnect back with the community and give me like a sense of purpose. Speaker 1: 02:50 Royal Ramy has a similar story. He's from Highland, just across the Valley from our brand and grew up. He also ended up in state prison, but was transferred Mississippi because of overcrowding. He was offered a chance to come home to California. If he would fight wildland fires in remote areas. Speaker 3: 03:09 I don't know if I could be able to do this. It was just, I'm a great runner. I can lift weights. You know, when you actually like hike and heels and stuff, it's a whole different animal. Speaker 1: 03:19 Royal and Brandon met at a fire camp in Hemet, in Riverside County. They immediately clicked. They were both Soyers, which means they were the ones in the front holding the chainsaw and they got kind of competitive. Speaker 2: 03:32 Don't let him say he was better. I was faster on the chainsaw. Speaker 3: 03:36 You were passionate about the saw, you know, so you talked about know different strategies Speaker 1: 03:40 And that rivalry grew into a deep friendship. Speaker 3: 03:45 We talked about just life trying to come out the situation, you know, with a better attitude, with a better, um, you know, position in life. Speaker 1: 03:52 Brandon was released eight months before Royal in March of 2014. Both their sentences were reduced because they worked on a fire crew. Speaker 2: 04:00 That's the first thing I told my parole officer, when I came home, I'm like, Hey man, I know this may sound like a little crazy to you, but I want to be a welder and firefighter. He was like, all right, well, good luck. I spent about 18 months really working, trying to figure it out. I was going to fire stations. I was turning in applications, Speaker 1: 04:23 But he wasn't getting far many positions required EMT training, which is hard to get as a felon, paid positions, not volunteer at were few and far between. And Brandon had to meet with his probation officer. So he couldn't go for opportunities more than 50 miles from Altadena. When Royal was released, he and Brandon decided to enroll in a fire Academy in Victorville. It was basically like starting off at square one, but then they met a fire chief from the us forest service who happened to be a black woman. Speaker 2: 04:56 And I remember pulling her to the side and saying like, Hey man, I'm like, here's the situation. I just want to be upfront. I've kept trying to hop into the space. Like I can't find no way in. And she was like, look, if you, you know, you try your hardest. I may eventually have an opportunity. Speaker 1: 05:11 A year later, Brandon and Royal were graduating at the top of their class, at least 21 major fires raging. And it was 2015 hires were burning across the States. And so that fire chief called Royal and Brandon and recruited them to fight the Lake fire near big bear fire crews are working to get the upper hand on the Lake fire, which continues to grow in the San Bernardino now. Speaker 2: 05:32 And next thing you know, we out there on the fire Speaker 1: 05:35 And in a moment that Brandon credits to divine intervention, he and Royal ran into a prison fire crew and recognize some of the guys Speaker 3: 05:44 Three fellows. It ain't like, Oh my God y'all did any of y'all. You know, y'all professional firefighters. Like what's up, what's up. Help us out. Speaker 2: 05:50 Liz knew like we need to go help. These people Speaker 1: 05:52 Fighting the Lake fire, got them in the door. Royal got a job with the forest service in San Bernardino, Brandon and Sonora, just getting to work was a struggle all on its own. Speaker 3: 06:04 It's funny. Cause Brandon, he didn't even have a car. He didn't let nothing stop him. Like we don't, we don't one of the biggest things that me and Brandon, we both have in corn or souls that don't make no excuses for yourself. Speaker 1: 06:16 It was literally getting rides from coworkers to fight fires, sometimes traveling hours each way. And on top of that, he was going to prison, fire camps, talking to incarcerated firefighters about how to find jobs in the forest service. In 2015, Brandon and Royal decided to found a nonprofit organization called the forestry and fire recruitment program. They partner with local governments like LA County to get paid on the job training to former inmates and help with state firefighting applications. Since 2015, they've helped over a hundred people find work in the forest service folks who graduated from their program are fighting the fires across California. Now as engineers, leading crews, flying helicopters. But I am curious about like your feelings about having been introduced to this path while you were in prison. What are your thoughts on just like prison, labor in general Speaker 3: 07:19 Is folks getting short changed a little bit? I'm pretty sure. Yeah. But then, you know, I endured what I endured and I've benefited from it and I wouldn't change nothing. You know, me personally, I wouldn't change nothing. Speaker 1: 07:31 Then also wouldn't change anything about his life, but he would change the system. Speaker 2: 07:37 I believe that us as a country, we have a heavy dependence on the use of incarcerated people. As laborers. We get the same training out here. We get the same, if not more experience than the firefighters out here. 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 Speaker 1: 07:58 Says the new bill headed to the governor's desk is a step in the right direction. It would allow some formerly incarcerated people to get their crimes expunged so they can be more easily hired at fire stations. It would also allow them to end parole early to actually travel to wildfires across the state. But of course, it's just a step with California burning the way it's burning printed wants the state to do more, to create a new pipeline, to better support formerly incarcerated people, looking to make a living wage on the fire lines for the California report. I'm Ariella Markowitz in Los Angeles.