SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – As wildfires ravage California each year, exhausted firefighters call for backup from wherever they can get them – even in Australia.
However, one homemade resource is rarely used: thousands of experienced firefighters who made money in prison. Two state programs designed to get more ex-detaine firefighters hired professionally barely panned out, according to an Associated Press review, with a $30 million effort creating jobs for just over 100 firefighters, just over a third of enrolled prisoners.
Dressed in distinctive orange uniforms, teams of inmates protect multimillion-dollar homes for a few dollars a day by cutting bushes and trees with chainsaws and scraping the earth to create barriers that they hope will stop the flames.
Once released from prison, however, former inmates have trouble getting hired professionally because of their criminal records, despite a country-first 18-month law designed to ease their way and a 4-year training. program that costs taxpayers at least $180,000 per graduate.
“It’s absolutely an untapped pool of talent,” said Genevieve Rimer, who works with ex-cons trying to clean up their records. and put their lives at risk to ensure public safety.”
California isn’t alone in needing experienced smoke-eaters, but the country’s most populous state faces different challenges than other more sparsely populated western regions. A wildfire that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada nearly four years ago, for example, was the country’s deadliest wildfire in nearly a century, killing 85 people.
The US Forest Service is short of about 1,200 firefighters, 500 of them in California, and the Department of the Interior is short of about 450 firefighters, 150 of them in California, said two of the state’s top elected officials, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, in a recent letter to Biden administration officials.
Other western states are grappling with the issue. Nevada is considering a program like Arizona’s “Phoenix Crew,” which began in 2017 and primarily provides former inmate firefighters a conduit for firefighting work.
Governor Gavin Newsom signed California legislation in 2020 allowing former inmates to seek to withdraw guilty pleas or overturn convictions. A judge can then dismiss the charges. Former inmates convicted of murder, kidnapping, arson, escape and sex crimes are excluded.
Since the law took effect, the nonprofit Forestry & Fire Recruitment Program, started by two former inmates firefighters, has worked with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles to help former inmates clean their records and get hired.
However, they were only able to file 34 petitions, and only 12 had records purged during what the program warns “can be a long and drawn-out process.”
Ashleigh Dennis is one of at least three attorneys filing purge petitions through the Oakland-based law group Root & Rebound. She also managed to file just 23 requests, with 14 granted.
Among other obstacles, applicants must show a judge evidence that they have been rehabilitated, and expulsion only applies to crimes for which they were incarcerated while working on firefighting crews. Many people have unrelated beliefs that must be eliminated separately.
It’s been a learning curve educating judges about the law and getting the corrections department to expedite certification to the court that inmates served as firefighters, said Dennis and one of his clients, Phi Le. He filed a petition with the court in October and his record was expunged in January.
The record of Da’Ton Harris Jr. it was finally ascertained in August, about 18 months after the process began.
“I’m here, a public servant, risking my life every day to try to improve my community,” Harris said. “I don’t think it was a smooth transaction.”
Despite his track record, Harris has secured firefighting jobs with the US Forest Service, the state firefighting agency Cal Fire, and the Forest and Fire Recruitment Program.
But, like Le, his advancement was limited because his criminal record made him ineligible for an Emergency Medical Technician certification, an obstacle that disappeared with expulsion. Outside of temp jobs at federal and state firefighting agencies, most fire departments require applicants to be licensed EMTs — a certification that the state prohibits certain criminals from obtaining because the job provides access to narcotics and sharp objects.
Rimer, director of support services for the Forest Recruitment and Fire Program, said California should automatically eliminate records of eligible ex-inmates, just as it does for those convicted of old-fashioned marijuana crimes. And it should include your entire criminal record, she said.
“I think it opened up opportunities for people, but I don’t think it’s good enough,” she said of the expulsion law.
The bill’s author, Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Reyes, a San Bernardino Democrat, has since struggled to find out how many ex-convicts she has helped. She said many former detainees had contacted her office to praise “the life-changing impact of the legislation”.
The corrections department informs eligible inmates about the law but does not track expulsions, said department spokeswoman Tessa Outhyse. Cal Fire, the justice system and the state Department of Justice also couldn’t say how many had their records erased.
In another effort, California in 2018 created a training program to help ex-offenders get hired professionally.
The 18-month program is managed by Cal Fire, the California Conservation Corps, the state’s Department of Corrections, and the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition at Ventura Training Center, northwest of Los Angeles. Conservation corps members are also eligible. Former inmates convicted of arson or sex crimes are excluded.
Participants spend six months in life skills and firefighter training and the following year fighting or preventing fires and doing other community service, for which they receive $1,905 a month. The center has four fire teams with 60 participants.
In four years, the program has cost more than $29.5 million but has just 106 graduates.
Nearly all have found professional employment: 98 are with Cal Fire and three are with other agencies, including the Orange County Fire Authority and the US Forest Service, according to corrections officials. Cal Fire provided slightly different numbers.
But they are the lucky ones among the 277 who have participated since the program’s inception. Another 111 participants, or 40%, left before completing the program, Outhyse said.
Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and destructive, so the shortage comes at a time when demand for wildfire teams is increasing.
And the state is turning more to professional forest firefighters, in large part because inmate teams are less available after voters reduced criminal sentences and authorities released thousands of lower-level inmates earlier to stave off coronavirus infections.
In August, about 1,670 inmates are in fire camps, including staff like cooks and laundry workers, down about 40% from August 2019. The corrections department was budgeted for 152 teams this year, but put only 51, each with around 15 to 18 firefighters.
With fewer inmate teams, California is turning more to other agencies. The conservation corps is responsible for manning 30 crews, Cal Fire 26 and the California National Guard 14.
The state is also creating what officials have called the first all-hazard firefighting team operated by a state National Guard. Fire trucks can respond to both forest fires and urban fires.
“We recognized a few years ago that due to early release, due to COVID, various other reasons, we have to do something,” said battalion chief Issac Sanchez, a spokesman for Cal Fire.
Gabe Stern contributed to this story from Reno, Nevada. Stern is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on top secret issues. Follow Stern on Twitter @gabestern326.