How Prisoners Fight California Wildfires – The Atlantic

Those risking their life on the front lines of California’s wildfires earn a fraction of minimum wage.

Rainbow Crew 4 after fighting a small fire near Hemet, 2017

Rainbow Crew 4 after fighting a small fire near Hemet, 2017 (Peter Bohler)

When I first met Alisha Tapia, in 2017, she was incarcerated in Puerta la Cruz, an all-female fire camp north of San Diego. Tapia was a swamper—a crew leader who relayed instructions from her captain and foreman to 12 other women on the fire line. She’d already worked two fire seasons in collaboration with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in the middle of an extreme drought. We stood in the saw shed, where she was cleaning and arranging tools. She had long brown hair and was about 5 foot 4. She was strong. She seemed cautious. Her crew had just gotten back from an hour-long hike near Bautista Canyon; the day before, they had been called out to the Palomar Divide to help contain a controlled burn that the Forest Service had started. “They lost it,” she said. “But it was only three acres—by the time we got up there, there were no flames.” She seemed disappointed. “We just put in a line to make sure that the fire didn’t jump again.”

She described what being on the front line felt like: “You just feel zapped; it drains you. That heat, that smoke, everything. But then there’s that adrenaline because you’re cutting.” She was a “second saw” during her first season, which meant she was third in the crew line and used a chainsaw to remove brush and potential kindling for the fire. Tapia, a single mother, told me that she couldn’t wait to see her daughter and that she wanted to pursue a career in forestry when she got out. She knew she couldn’t apply to Cal Fire or a municipal crew, because they don’t hire people with criminal records, but she hoped she could apply what she had learned.

When Tapia was released in November 2017, she asked her parole officer whether there were any state-provided services to help former inmates with addiction or mental-health issues. For roughly 15 years, she had been dealing with meth addiction and clinical depression. She says she was told that funding for those support services wasn’t available. Still, in her first three months out of prison, she stayed clean. Tapia lived with her parents, got a job at a Samsung call center, bought a car, and volunteered on a wildland crew through the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority. “Basically, it was the same thing we did in camp,” Tapia told me. “We covered the area from the Santa Monica Mountains to Ventura. We’d maintain upkeep of their facilities, brush clearance, chip a lot of stuff. I stopped right before the summer season started.”

Last fall, she called me from Los Angeles County jail.

On September 11, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom held a press conference in Oroville, at the site of the North Complex Fire—a series of fires in Northern California that had burned for the previous four weeks straight. He spoke about the 2020 fire season—the 3.5 million acres that had burned and the 7,700 fires that had coursed through the state. “If you do not believe in science, I hope you believe in observed evidence,” Newsom said.

As a result of the North Complex Fire alone, nine people were dead. The fire had chewed through 252,313 acres of land from several different directions, it was only 21 percent contained, and it was closing in on the scar of 2018’s Camp Fire in Paradise, just a few miles away. Newsom spoke through a bank of brown smoke that made the charred ground, gnarled trees, and his hunting jacket almost indistinguishable from one another. The governor thanked “those prisoners who are out there on the front lines, who actively participated in heroic ways.” Then he signed A.B. 2147, a bill that had been introduced six months earlier by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes to provide a potential pathway to employment for incarcerated firefighters like Tapia. “This bill … will give those prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession [in which] they’ve been trained,” Newsom told the cameras. He walked over to a picnic bench, scrawled his name on a piece of paper, and declared the bill official, outloud, to the scrum of reporters.

Four years ago, when I first wrote about the thousands of incarcerated firefighters who compose up to 30 percent of California’s wildland firefighting crews, there was no pathway to a professional career through Cal Fire or municipal fire departments after their release. Despite their experience working on the front lines, sometimes for several seasons, formerly incarcerated people could not qualify for EMT or EMR licenses, which are required in order to be hired on a professional crew. The bill Newsom signed seeks to remedy that by allowing incarcerated firefighters the chance to petition for expedited expungement relief immediately upon release. If their request is granted, they won’t have to wait until they’re off parole to apply for state jobs—not just firefighting jobs, but jobs in roughly 200 different fields that require a state license.

But it’s not enough—formerly incarcerated firefighters put themselves at risk to save a state in peril. The fire-camp program began in 1946, and California continues to rely on more than 1,000 inmates, who are paid $2 to $5 a day in camp and an additional $1 to $2 an hour when they’re on a fire line. The program saves California taxpayers about $100 million a year, according to the corrections department. A.B. 2147 does nothing to reform or recognize the inherent flaws of forcing incarcerated people to risk their life while contending with California’s climate crisis.

Over the course of many phone calls from L.A. County jail last year, Tapia told me what had happened after we first met. She was paroled a week after Thanksgiving in 2017. Her family waited to have a big turkey lunch so they could all celebrate together. “It was hard to see Kayleigh,” Tapia told me, referring to her daughter. “Sitting there at the table, I looked at my grandparents and my daughter, and I just started crying, and I tried to hide. I just felt like I didn’t belong—like I’d been inside too long or something. It was just foreign to me, so I went to the bathroom because I didn’t want my daughter to see me cry. I thought there was something wrong with me, because it was everything I wanted, but I wasn’t happy about it.”

Then she relapsed.

Six months after her release, she was charged with attempted residential burglary. It was her third strike. Within a few months of her conviction, she was sentenced to 36 years to life in prison. Now, because of her life sentence, she’s not eligible for programming, including fire camp. When we talked late last summer, Tapia was waiting to be transferred to state prison—a freeze on moving prisoners had been implemented because of the pandemic.

In jail, there were no COVID-19 tests, and new prisoners who might have been carrying the virus were processed daily. During one of our conversations, Tapia told me, “I don’t want to die in here.” She described watching the burning of the state she used to help protect. On TV, she’d seen Newsom declare a state of emergency on September 6 in Fresno, Madera, and Mariposa Counties because of the Creek Fire and in San Bernardino County because of the El Dorado Fire. “I feel so stupid; I wish I was out there on the fires,” she said.

As we talked that day, I wondered whether A.B. 2147 would have helped her if it had been in effect when she was released.

First, she would have had to get a certificate from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) recommending her for expungement. Next, she would have had to go before a judge for approval of her expungement application. And even if a judge had granted her application, a district attorney could have opposed it. Another judge would then have had to hear that argument. And finally, Cal Fire, or whichever hiring agency was in charge of the interview process, would have had to choose to hire an individual with a criminal record, which will still appear in background checks, even after a successful petition for expungement. (Many municipal firefighting agencies get 300 applicants for every firefighting position, and often point to that statistic as the reason an individual isn’t hired.) The bill Newsom signed—though progress by any measure—provides no mechanism to monitor any of these steps. It makes no formal attempts to gather data on whether it will actually benefit formerly incarcerated firefighters. Even if A.B. 2147 had been in effect, and applied as progressively as possible, when Tapia was released, she would have had to navigate reentry while negotiating several stages of legal petitions to expedite an expungement of her record. And the law still doesn’t guarantee an offer of employment.

Last October, Tapia was finally transferred to Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, 40 miles north of Fresno. “I’ll find out in the next couple weeks if they’re making me a violent third-striker or nonviolent; my counselor thinks I’ll be nonviolent since no one was hurt,” Tapia told me. There was optimism in her voice, but then it dropped. “I’m eligible for parole board in 2037. And they said my parole date is 2042.” As fall became winter, my calls with Tapia became shorter and less frequent—she was new at Chowchilla and had less seniority with the phones. When we talked, she seemed rushed. On January 9, she ecstatically shared some news with me: Her crime might be considered nonviolent, which, she told me, meant she’d probably serve about five years. She explained why she was tired and hadn’t spoken with Kayleigh or anyone else in weeks. The prison had a COVID-19 outbreak—at least 100 women had tested positive, she said. The entire facility was on lockdown with no yard time.

Inmates with COVID-19 were quarantined to one building on C Yard. Her neighbor across the hall was sick. The kitchen staff was sick. Tapia volunteered for kitchen duty, working 16-hour shifts, seven days a week. It was exhausting and terrifying. By mid-January, 175 incarcerated people and 16 CDCR staff members had died of COVID-19. The next month, Tapia tested positive. She was sick for a month in isolation before recovering. ​​Many women told me they avoided medical and dental care in prison as much as possible—for good reason. CDCR has a long history of substandard care. In 2005, a federal court pronounced that the facility’s medical care of inmates violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment—a judge found that California’s prisoners were subject to barbaric medical conditions in some prisons, resulting in the preventable deaths of as many as 64 inmates a year and injury to many others—and this was before COVID-19.

Climatologists predict that the best-case scenario for the American West is decades of megafires and destruction. The state recorded its worst fire season last year, with more than 4 million estimated acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. A severe drought coupled with the human-induced climate crisis set the stage for a 2021 fire season that has already seen three times more land burned in California this year than during the same time span last year—as of mid-July, more than 200,000 acres have burned in the state, compared with 40,000 last year. Inmate crews are working, arguably, the most difficult and dangerous job in California right now. Several fires are active near Chowchilla, where Tapia is imprisoned. If she had her choice, she’d go back to fire camp for as much of her sentence as possible.

Dozens of current and former inmate firefighters, including Tapia, told me about the benefits of the program and how it changed their life. But imagine if, instead of being part of a prison camp, those who qualified were part of an apprenticeship that paid competitive wages, one that led to jobs. It could be a forestry camp run through the California Conservation Corps and Cal Fire, eliminating the presence of correctional officers altogether. Imagine if these fire camps included social services.

“Sometimes I get very depressed here, and I think I’m never going to go home. I went through all that—I fought fire. But sometimes I think about suicide,” Tapia told me. “I should have made better choices, and I think about what my captain would say. I know he would have been very disappointed.”

A.B. 2147’s shortcomings and Newsom’s half-hearted recognition of incarcerated firefighters reminded me of something David Fathi, the director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told me when I was first reporting on this issue: ‘‘I think one important question to ask is, if these people are safe to be out and about and carrying axes and chainsaws, maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.’’

This article has been adapted from Jaime Lowe’s new book, Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires.