The ideal job it isn’t.
The workweek can be as long as 168 hours, the temperature brutal, the environment savage. Thick clothing, backpacks and equipment must be worn over heavy blue jeans regardless of the thermometer. And a slight change in the wind can spell disaster--or even death.
The pay is $1 per hour, but--considering the alternative--maybe it’s not so bad.
The job is fighting fires; the alternative is sitting in a prison cell.
Whenever a brush or forest fire of even minimal acreage hits Orange County, the bright orange outfits of state prison inmate firefighters are usually there, and usually there in a hurry. They make up half of the California Department of Forestry’s 6,000-member firefighting force, according to Chief Bruce Cowie, who directs CDF conservation camps in Southern California.
Without them, the costs of knocking down blazes would be astronomical, impossible to even estimate, said Robert Linn, the ranger in charge at Oak Glen Conservation Camp, an inmate firefighter facility in Yucaipa.
“We do all the work,” said Mark H., 25, a Prado Conservation Camp inmate who was cutting brush around a smoldering 225-acre fire on a bleak mountainside in San Bernardino Forest recently. “Look around. Who else is up here?”
While it’s not true that they do all the work, they certainly do much of it.
The program is voluntary, and those inmates who do choose to work as firefighters are throughly screened, since they are neither locked up at the end of a shift nor guarded with weapons, Linn said. The program does not accept violent cases, escape risks or arsonists, he said.
Inmate firefighters train for four weeks to become members of a Class 1 Fire Crew, which means they are qualified to do everything from mopping up after a fire to front-line duty.
“We go where the bulldozers can’t go,” said Russell B., 21, a Prado inmate who came from Avenal State Prison.
Most of those in the program are “short-timers,” with less than two years still to be served on their sentences, Linn said. Many of them are in for drug charges.
“We’re saving the forest, man” said Russell, who was convicted of cocaine offenses. “And it’s rehabilitation. There’s no drugs out here.”
The screening process largely eliminates escapes, said Linn, although there are rare instances when it happens.
The inmates live in an open camp, without bars, and are supervised in the field without the use of weapons, although head counts are done at least once every two hours in the field.
"(Trying to escape) is not worth it,” said inmate Mark, who has been at Prado for the last three months and will be released later this year. “For one, (if you get caught) you get more time. (If you don’t get caught), you have to go to a different state, change your name. The whole nine yards.”
Other inmates in Prado Crew 1 agreed, saying the easiest way out is to stay in and wait. “By the time you get to camp, you’re ‘short’ anyway,” said 31-year-old Prado inmate Daniel S.
And besides, many of them said, they don’t see any way of staying free if they escape.
“I (would) just go to East L.A. and they would catch me,” said Louie D., who is scheduled for release next May. “I don’t know anybody in Europe.”
Oak Glen operations officer David Lokce recalled once supervising a crew near the Mexican border. He saw a prisoner apparently making a run for it, only to stop at the fence. “He just wanted to touch the line to say he had fought fires from border to border,” Locke said.
Without much motivation for escape, inmates usually decide to do the hard work for the money, food, travel and, of course, to avoid life in a cell.
When not actually fighting fires, prisoners are paid $1.40 a day while training or building firebreaks. The pay goes up to the $1 per hour figure when the alarm bell rings.
“Crime doesn’t pay,” said Brian B., 26, who said he was imprisoned for armed robbery. “Look--$1 an hour!”
The inmates are not allowed to have money in the camp, and their wages are accumulated and given to them when they are released. Some are able to take home as much as $1,500, said Prado supervisor Ray Cano.
Another incentive to join the program is the food. Firefighting prisoners eat well by any standards, supervisors and inmates agree.
Breakfast usually consists of eggs, hash browns, milk and bacon or sausage. For lunch, they have cold meat sandwiches that they make themselves. For dinner, they often have steak or chicken, followed by a salad and dessert.
“They eat extremely well,” said Cano. “That’s an incentive for the camp program. I eat meals here myself.”
There’s also a certain element of excitement that goes with the program. Inmates can be, and often are, dispatched at a moment’s notice by Air National Guard all over the state to fight fires, said Cano.
But for most, just being out of a cell--for any reason--is motivation enough to join. “We don’t feel like we’re incarcerated here,” said Prado inmate Emerson S., 27.
Many inmates come from the inner city of Los Angeles and have never been exposed to the wildlife seen often in the dense forests where they fight fires.
“It’s hard work, but I like being in the mountains,” said Rick B., 32, who said he wants to become a forest ranger when he is released.
Most inmates shrug off any suggestion that they are involved in a life-threatening job. “They would never put us in a situation like that, and if they do, I’m not going,” said one. “They don’t just throw you in there.”.
And Cano said the prisoners are not exposed to any more danger than career firefighters.
The free firefighters and inmates do not associate while resting in the field, Linn said, because the inmate workers are segregated by sex, while the free teams are not.
At a fire scene, the free and inmate crews often work side by side, and many free firefighters speak highly of their incarcerated counterparts.
“They bust their butts just like we do,” Orange County firefighter Rocco DeFrancesco said while taking a break during a recent fire near Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. “The inmate crews work really well. They do a good job.”
One inmate--shoveling dirt on a smoldering San Bernardino Forest hillside, while the temperatures soared and smoke and ashes choked the air--pondered the merits of the program.
“It’s better than sitting in an institution,” he said, “but sometimes you wonder.”