A prison firefighter died in the line of duty May 24 after a 3,000-pound, 105-year-old tree fell and struck him in the head while he was clearing brush in the Hoopa Valley area in Northern California.
Matthew Beck, a 26-year-old prisoner serving a six-year term for burglary, was operating a chainsaw at the time and did not hear his Cal Fire captain shout, according to articles by KQED and the Los Angeles Times.
When the 120-foot Douglas fir tree fell, the captain rushed over and asked one of the other firefighters to get Beck out from under the tree, according to KQED. That prisoner sawed off a section of the tree, put Beck on a board and moved him out of harm’s way, but he died from major head, neck and back injuries before a helicopter could get to him. Another inmate was also hit by the tree and knocked off balance but was not injured.
According to KQED, the supervisor had trouble contacting the agency’s Emergency Command Center in Humboldt County because his hand-held radio did not work due to the remote location. That captain had to run to his vehicle and drive for a quarter-mile before he was able to use the mobile radio.
“…it is a tragic event when we lose one of them”
A Cal Fire preliminary report cited by KQED found that fire officials had noticed the tree before it fell. “The hazard tree was identified prior to the road work being started and estimated to be outside the work area,” it reported.
State workplace regulators are investigating CDCR in connection to Beck’s death, said the KQED report.
California uses about 3,900 state inmates, who fight fires and work on infrastructure projects. Inmates get paid $2 a day, and $1 an hour while fighting an active fire, allowing the state to save about $90 million a year.
Beck was the fourth inmate firefighter killed in the history of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) conservation camp program. Last year, a female inmate was struck in the head by a falling boulder while fighting a fire in Malibu.
Following the incident, the CDCR issued 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,” said Scott Kernan, state corrections secretary.
According to Reuters, Beck was expected to be parole this October.