SANTA ROSA, CA: OCTOBER 29: California Department of Corrections inmates from Weott, in Humboldt County, line up as they await their deployment at the Kincade Fire Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. (Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Brandon Smith was incarcerated in Wasco State Prison in 2012 when a correctional officer approached him about becoming a firefighter—not after prison, but during his time inside. Smith would, if he said “yes,” serve in what the state calls its Conservation Camp Program.

“I remember being in a cell when a counselor at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” Smith told The Real News. “She came and knocked on my cell and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be a wildland firefighter? Do you want to go to fire camp?’ And at first, I said, ‘No.”

Smith was hesitant to do a dangerous job that he had never done before. But he came to see the camps’ facilities dotting the state’s landscape as a chance to escape the four walls of prison, eat “10 times better” food, learn new skills, and also get the highest pay among California prisoners. 

“When I talked to folks, I realized that the conditions and the situations, life would be so much better for me,” Smith said. ”So I decided to do it and lo and behold, I loved it.” 

It was something of an unrequited love, though. Smith found it hard to get hired as a firefighter when he got out of prison in 2014.  

“I tried to do it once I came home and it was pretty much no pathway,” Smith said, due to “public perception” and institutional barriers. 

“I’m not naive to the fact that I went from what would be considered like, a public nuisance or a public safety issue, to a public safety officer,” Smith said.

He eventually found a way into the field but considers it “only by the grace of God”—through copious networking and by meeting the right person.

“I got my first opportunity professionally from a Black woman,” said Smith, who is now the executive director of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program after working four years as a wildland firefighter after his time spent in prison. “She was the fire chief of the fire department in Big Bear, and she was the one who decided to kind of ignore my past and give me an opportunity to go do the work.” 

The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, a nonprofit organization, aims to create a career pathway for those who served in the camps program. Smith’s goal is to end the “false narrative” about people who are or have been incarcerated and “spread awareness” about opportunities for those who served in the program while incarcerated to get a job in the field afterward. 

Administered jointly by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and CAL FIRE, the Conservation Camp Program has existed since the post-World War II era. 

The camps program has faced criticism in recent years as the climate crisis prolongs and worsens fire seasons. A recent study by Stanford University researchers concluded that climate change could extend California’s wildfire season, traditionally thought of as existing between August through October, further into the fall due to weather patterns making autumn more summer-like.

At a July 9 press conference, California Gov. Gavin Newsom put the gravity of worsening wildfire seasons into context, stating “just in the last 10 years, five of the most destructive wildfire seasons we have incurred” took place. According to CAL FIRE statistics, about 28% more wildfires blazed so far in 2020 compared to the five-year average. One of those—the Apple Fire in San Bernardino, California—is currently burning and is over 32,000 acres in size.

Prisoners fighting fires earn abysmally low wages: between $2.90—$5.12 per day, and an additional $1 per hour paid by CAL FIRE during active fires. That, at maximum, just over $15,900 per year for those who work a 50-hour week, the industry standard, and at minimum just over $7,500 per year. The low wages—combined with the disproportionate number of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in the state’s prisons—have raised fundamental social justice questions about the state’s carceral system.

Image Credit: Prison Policy Initiative

Up until July 2018, the state admitted that this pay scale saved California $100 million per year. But it scrubbed that information from its website at the beginning of wildfire season in August, the Web Archive shows. According to numbers provided to The Real News by CDCR, the state had 2,215 firefighters in 42 camps as of June 22. That’s compared to the over 9,000 employees, about 7,000 full-time and 2,300 seasonal, at CAL FIRE.

Prison reform measures passed by the California Legislature in recent years have caused a drop in numbers in the fire camps program, losing about 1,000 participants since 2007. The numbers were down further in early July, too, because about half of the fire crews statewide were under quarantine after their members contracted COVID-19. The CDCR now reports zero camps on quarantine and no positive cases among staff or prisoners. Breathing in smoke from wildfires increases the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, and could also worsen the symptoms.

As the number of incarcerated firefighters has dwindled, Newsom recently announced CAL FIRE would hire 1,030 new firefighters for the 2020 fire season, 172 permanent and 858 seasonal, at an average salary of over $69,000 per year—over $26.43 per hour for a typical 50-hour week.

It’s not just low wages that reformers see as the problem. The state’s laws also make it nearly impossible to get a job in the field for those who serve in the camps program. Recently, legislation passed through the California Assembly and in Senate committee which would create a regulatory mechanism to expedite the criminal record expungement process for those who served in the fire camps. Pay-based reforms do not appear to be on the horizon, however, despite calls from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sonja Tonneson-Casalengo, the deputy director of programs at the prison reentry advocacy group Root & Rebound, said prison labor responding to wildfires has helped the public see incarcerated firefighters through the lens of class. 

“These wildfires were reaching urban areas, they were reaching Los Angeles, they were reaching the Bay Area and large cities across the state where huge numbers of people live,” she told The Real News. “And there’s a lot of wealth in places like Los Angeles and the Bay Area and in these communities. So it was wealthy people’s homes and land being impacted.”

Smith, who calls the current system for prison wildland firefighters “indentured servitude,” said the racial dynamics are also hard to deny and symbolize a need for reforms.

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“What you’ll see actually in California’s fire camps is you’ll actually see majority African-Americans, Black folks, Hispanics, Asian communities,” said Smith. “The optics of this look very clear. You know, you have 17 Black and Hispanic folks on a crew led by a white male overseer type person.”

Reformists, though, have centuries of history to contend with in attempting to change the fire camps system. This history dates back to California’s history as a Spanish missionary colony in the late 1700s. 

Colonial Routes

In a 2019 academic paper titled “California’s First Mass Incarceration System,” historian Benjamin Madley describes the state’s Spanish Catholic Church colonial missions as sites in which the state’s Indigenous population were treated akin to “slaves.”

The missions were a major moneymaker for the colonizing Spanish missionaries. They produced massive amounts of barley, corn, and wheat, while managing a massive array of livestock that included pigs, mules, horses, cattle, and sheep. It all came at a serious cost: death at a massive scale. Out of the 89,800 who were baptized, 66,100 Indigenous people died working on the missions. One out of every three Indigenous babies did not make it to their first birthday; four in ten died before the age of five. 

The state began a new era of prison labor when it constructed its first two prisons under U.S. rule, both of which still exist today: San Quentin and Folsom. For the next 100 years or so, the state offered a preview of the camps program by putting prisoners to work building major water projects and roads, and doing agrarian labor.

Among other things, prisoners built part of perhaps the state’s most iconic highway—Route 101, running from San Francisco to Eureka—with the granite they helped to extract as laborers at Folsom State Prison.

U.S. Highway 101 at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Doug Kerr/Wikimedia Commons

Out of this history came the Conservation Camps. While the future of camps is up for debate today, they were also the subject of similar activism in previous decades. 

In 1972, 800 prison firefighters at the Sierra Conservation Center went on strike. The “predominantly nonwhite camp population found itself guarded by overwhelmingly white guards,” Volker Janssen, professor at California State University-Fullerton, wrote in an article published by The History Channel. That strike ended with prison guard brutality, including the guards “shooting almost 120 rifle rounds at windows and doors over several hours, but not killing anyone,” wrote Jannsen in a 2009 paper. 

While the strike failed to achieve concessions, efforts to reform the camps system continue to this day.

Reform Efforts, Litigation

One of those efforts came in 2018. During his last year in office, Gov. Jerry Brown signed an over $25 million budget provision creating the Ventura Training Center in Ventura County. 

Administered by CAL FIRE, CDCR, and Anti-Recidivism Coalition to create a firefighter training and certification program for 80 participants per year, the program acts as a career pipeline for those who served in the fire camps. The program faced opposition from the Camarillo City Council, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, and Ventura Council of Governments—its hometown governments. 

“We have serious objections to your budget proposal [to create] a de facto parolee half-way house on the edge of our City, and within walking distance to five Camarillo neighborhoods,” the council wrote in a letter to Brown. “With parolee recidivism rates between 60% and 70% statewide, the housing of 80 parolees (some of whom may have been convicted of robbery and burglary) adjacent to residential areas is a serious threat and an affront to the safety and security concerns of the citizens of Camarillo.”

Undeterred, Brown budgeted for the program anyway. 

Nicholas Reiner, the communications director for the Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said the Camarillo City Council’s initial backlash has so far proven unwarranted.

“These individuals are here to make their lives better and also remarkably to serve their communities,” Reiner, whose group advocated for the training center, told The Real News. “It’s not like a job training program. If it was only to enhance their lives, it would still be useful. But this is actually serving your community.”

The 2018 opposition movement failed, and the Ventura Training Program is a reality. But another opposition movement prevailed in the 2019 debate over AB 1211

AB 1211, introduced by Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino), called for the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards to “provide a career pathway to individuals with previous criminal convictions who have demonstrated rehabilitation and desire to work as firefighters” in the form of a “statewide firefighter apprenticeship program.”

It did not even get a committee hearing, though, and is now officially dead. The California Professional Firefighters Association proved instrumental in killing it, speaking out and lobbying against it.

In the 2020 legislative session, Reyes introduced yet another piece of Conservation Camp reform legislation, AB 2147. That bill would create a pathway for expunging criminal records for those with felonies and who served in the fire camps by allowing them “to enter a plea of not guilty” into their official criminal record files. The legislation does not cover those who committed violent felonies, sex offenses, arson, or escape from a secure perimeter. As it stands, most municipal fire departments, as well as CAL FIRE, will not hire those with a felony on their records.  

The legislation passed in the Assembly 54-0 on June 15 and 5-1 in the Senate Public Safety Committee hearing on July 31. 

The bill has lobbying support from the California Public Defenders Association, but has drawn opposition from the California District Attorneys Association.

“While we understand the risks posed by wildfires and the need to use available resources to mitigate wildfire danger, relief such as expungement/dismissal of criminal cases should be limited to lower level offenders,” the District Attorneys wrote in opposition to the legislation. “In addition, prison inmates participating in conservation camp or fire camp already receive incentives and benefits such as increased conduct credits.”

According to lobbying disclosure data reviewed by The Real News, Amanda Martin—former California Deputy Attorney General under Brown—is registered to lobby on behalf of the Association. Despite the opposition, Reyes’ office believes the bill still stands a good chance of passage.

“We are very positive on its chances, but nothing is guaranteed,” Mark Farouk, chief of staff for Reyes, told The Real News via email.

Just four days after AB 2147 passed in the Assembly, Dario Gurrola, an alum of the Conservation Camp Program, filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in an attempt to remove another hurdle to entering the profession. State law currently prohibits those who have a felony on their records from getting an emergency medical technician license until 10 years after serving in prison, and bars those with two felonies on their record from obtaining an EMT certification. The Camarillo City Council actually cited this hurdle in 2018 in opposing the Ventura Training Center, writing that “Realistically, parolees won’t be able to compete for firefighting jobs.”

Gurrola’s lawsuit echoes the council’s statement, but for a different reason.

“California trains and uses prisoners with felony records to fight wildfires, and it allows people with felony records to serve as seasonal or volunteer firefighters,” reads the complaint filed by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization, submitted on behalf of Gurrola. “Yet, because full-time firefighting usually requires EMT certification, the state effectively prohibits these same people from pursuing firefighting careers. This irrational prohibition does not pass constitutional muster.”

Climate, Carceral Reform Converge

Beyond firefighting, the oil and gas industry employs prisoners to both clean up its excesses and assist in its extractive activities which are worsening the climate crisis. 

Agencies have summoned prisoners to clean up both of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill which served as the inspiration for the first Earth Day and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana also has a post-release Transitional Work Program for its prisoners to clean up oil spills, assist in pipeline construction, make meals at oil and gas production sites, and to make equipment for the oil and gas production itself.

(Original Caption) 2/5/69-Santa Barbara, California- Prisoners called in from forest conservation camps rake oil-soaked hay aong the surf line of Santa Barbara harbor Feb. 5th. Hay was used to soak up oil washed ashore after an offshore oil well began leaking. Beaches along a 30-mile stretch of the southern California coast looked like busy construction camps Feb. 10th as machines hauled away sand blackened by the overflow from the well.

Further, climate change has made the conditions within the walls of prison hotter for prisoners, according to multiple academic studies. 

Ryerson University’s Brett Story, the co-author of one such study, told The Real News that climate change’s impact in the form of fires could serve as further impetus for criminal justice system reform in the state in what she calls the “Green New Deal for Decarceration.”  

“California in the ‘80s and ‘90s embarked on the largest prison building and prison filling program in the world,” she said. “I think there’s an opportunity here, in looking at the deployment of prisoner firefighters, to put the state response to climate change in conversation with the state preoccupation with policing and punishment and to point out that there are a hell of a lot of resources at the state level that can and should be used differently.”

Smith agrees. “I hope I work myself out of a job” at the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, he said. “I think the state could respond perfectly by formalizing a pathway for these folks … That’s all you got to do … If the state did that, it would be a whole different story.“

Editing contributed by Ericka Blount


Updated 08/24/2020: A previous version of this article said about half of the participants in the Conservation Camps program are under quarantine due to COVID-19. That was the case in early-July, but no longer is the case today, according to the CDCR.

Steve Horn

Climate Change Reporter

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.