Meet the formerly incarcerated fire crew protecting California from wildfires

Since 2015, the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program has been helping former inmate firefighters get jobs. Now, FFRP is starting its own private fire crew. They call themselves the Buffalos.

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California depends on incarcerated labor to fight wildfires, saving the state approximately $100 million annually. But when these men and women come home from prison, access to information, legal barriers and social stigma make getting jobs as professional firefighters almost impossible.

Brandon Smith and Royal Ramey met while incarcerated at Bautista Conservation Camp, one of the 35 fire camps in California. They grew close through friendly competition and a mutual realization that they wanted to pursue fire professionally after release.

After coming home in 2014, it took them each about two years to gain the certifications and connections necessary to get their first jobs as wildland firefighters. When they went back out on the fireline and ran into their old inmate crew, they were inspired to turn their hard-won knowledge into a training program specifically designed for people with experiences similar to their own. They founded the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) and have helped hundreds of men and women get jobs.

In 2020, with California facing a desperate need for firefighters, Smith and Ramey decided to start their own private fire crew, with the goal of working directly with state agencies. They call themselves the Buffalos.

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This documentary follows a small group of former inmate firefighters as they navigate the hurdles of reentering society and the Buffalos as they prepare for their first fire season.