Inmate firefighter dies battling Northern California blaze

Matthew Beck was a 26-year-old inmate at Alder Conservation Camp in Del Norte County.
(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

An inmate firefighter died Wednesday when a 120-foot-tall tree fell on him while he was battling a wildfire in Humboldt County, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Matthew Beck, 26, was leading an inmate crew as they were removing brush in the remote community of Hoopa to stop the small fire from advancing, department spokesman Bill Sessa said.

Beck was operating a chainsaw and likely didn’t hear the tree when it uprooted and landed on him, he said. He suffered major head, neck and back injuries.

Beck, who was assigned to the Alder Conservation Camp in Del Norte County in November 2016, died before a helicopter crew was able to reach him.


“We are saddened by the death of Matthew Beck, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends,” state corrections secretary Scott Kernan said in a statement. “The inmates who year after year help protect our communities from the devastation of fires perform a valuable public service, and it is a tragic event when we lose one of them.”

Beck was sentenced in May 2014 to six years in prison for burglary in Los Angeles County, the department said.

He is the fourth conservation camp inmate to be killed since the program began in 1943.

Last year, Shawna Lynn Jones was the first female inmate in state history to die while battling a wildfire in February. She was struck in the head by a falling boulder while working fire lines in Malibu.


Typically, inmate firefighters are armed with such tools as shovels and pickaxes, and focus on establishing fire containment lines in rugged terrain. Inmates operate in crews of 12 or 14 and under the direction of a fire captain, Sessa said.

Inmates who work in fire camps are carefully screened and evaluated to ensure they have the right temperament and attitude.

The department operates 43 conservations camps, which house about 3,900 inmate firefighters.


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