Year-round, incarcerated women in California prisons are putting their lives on the line fighting fires up and down the state to limit major disasters, according to an Op-Ed by Jaime Lowe in the Los Angeles Times.
California prisoners started fighting fires in 1946. In an average year now, about 2,000 incarcerated men and women log about three million hours of service to fires and emergencies, and seven million hours of community service, saving tax-payers about $100 million each year stated the Times article.
In 2016, California had three all-female fire camps, all of them in Southern California. One of them closed in 2020.
In Lowe’s recent interview with a camp resident named Bri, she said “Camp is what you make of it,” and “It’s a challenge every day,” and “It’s 99% mental,” and “People can open their eyes and see the beauty here. It’s healing.”
“But those words were more than talking points,” Lowe wrote. “She had evolved in camp. She told me she had chosen camp over being transferred to a community-based reentry program.”
“This program is what changed me,” she said.
Since 2015 the fire season throughout California has changed from the summer to fighting fires year long, putting a strain on the workforce> It’s also a heavy burden on resources.
CDCR firefighters make up about 30% of the state’s firefighters. There are 35 fire camps in 26 counties.
The makeup of a typical fire camp is not just firefighting; to keep the camp operational, it needs cooks, clerical workers, groundskeepers, and workers to operate the water treatment plant.
The work for firefighters is tough, even when they are not on call. Sometimes their day’s activities start with them clearing roads and cutting excessive brush, and exercising.
The women have to stay in shape. The work they do is very physically exhausting and if they are not in shape it wears on them mentally and hinders their work performance.
Correctional staff and L.A. County firefighters believe in the work the women are doing. They have to because the majority of the camps are in high-risk fire areas. The women are on call daily and need to be ready to get to a fire as soon as possible.
Lowe writes that staff at the camp “believe in the rehabilitative value of the program and get a lot of satisfaction out of it, and of course, there is a synergy between their support for the program and the success of the inmates.”
During and after the coronavirus outbreak a lot of the camps are down because of the virus and women paroling.
Some other states are also using those incarcerated to fight fires. Over the last three years, fires across the country have exploded, and without the help of prisoners, their workforce would be strained.
The women in these camps have to like what they are doing because the pay for what they are doing is very minimal — $2.56 a day in camp plus $1 an hour while fighting fires.
Recent legislation allows paroled firefighters to apply for certification in regular fire jobs.