SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – As wildfires rage across California each year, exhausted firefighters are calling for help wherever they can – even as far away as Australia.
However, one domestic resource is rarely used: thousands of experienced firefighters who earned their chops in prison. Two state programs designed to professionally hire more formerly incarcerated firefighters barely missed a beat, according to an Associated Press review, with a $30 million effort netting jobs for just over 100 firefighters, just over one third of registered prisoners.
Dressed in distinctive orange uniforms, crews of inmates protect multimillion-dollar homes for a few dollars a day by cutting brush and trees with chainsaws and scraping the earth to create barriers they hope will stop the flames.
Once released from prison, however, ex-convicts struggle to find employment because of their criminal records, despite a first-in-the-nation, 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 talent pool,” said Genevieve Rimer, who works with former inmates to try to clear their records. “Thousands of people return from California campfires every year. They are already trained. They have the desire to go and put their lives on the line to ensure public safety.”
California isn’t the only one in need of experienced smokers, but the nation’s most populous state faces different challenges than other more sparsely populated western regions. A wildfire that nearly leveled the town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills nearly four years ago, for example, was the nation’s deadliest wildfire in nearly a century, killing 85 people.
The U.S. Forest Service is short about 1,200 firefighters, including 500 in California, and the Department of the Interior is short about 450 firefighters, including 150 in California, two of the state’s top elected officials, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, said. and Alex Padilla. in a recent letter to Biden administration officials.
Other western states are tackling the issue. Nevada is considering a program like Arizona’s “Phoenix Crew,” which began in 2017 and provides mostly ex-incarcerated firefighters with a pipeline to firefighting jobs.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed California legislation in 2020 allowing ex-prisoners to seek to withdraw guilty pleas or overturn convictions. A judge can then dismiss the charges. Excluded are ex-prisoners convicted of murder, kidnapping, arson, escape and sex offenses.
Since the law went into effect, the nonprofit Forestry & Fire Recruitment Program, started by two ex-incarcerated firefighters, has partnered with the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation to help ex-inmates clear their records and get hired.
However, they were only able to file 34 reports and just 12 had records expunged during what the program warns “can be a long, drawn-out process.”
Ashleigh Dennis is one of at least three attorneys filing expungement requests through Oakland-based advocacy group Root & Rebound. Similarly, he was able to submit just 23 requests, 14 of which were accepted.
Among other hurdles, applicants must prove to a judge that they have been rehabilitated, and the expungement only applies to crimes for which they were imprisoned while working on fire crews. Many people have unrelated beliefs that need to be cleared separately.
It’s been a learning curve educating judges about the law and getting the corrections department up to speed on certifying in court that inmates have served as firefighters, said Denise and one of her clients, Phi Le. He filed a petition with the court in October and his record was expunged in January.
Da’Ton Harris Jr.’s record it was finally cleared in August, some 18 months after the proceedings began.
“I’m out here, a public servant, risking my life every day to try to better my community,” Harris said. “I don’t think it was a smooth transaction.”
Despite his background, Harris landed firefighting positions with the U.S. Forest Service, state Cal Fire and the Forest and Fire Recruiting Program.
But like Le, his progress was limited because his criminal record made him ineligible for Emergency Medical Technician certification, a barrier that disappeared with the expungement. Except for temporary jobs in federal and state fire departments, most fire departments require applicants to have an EMT license — a certification that the state prohibits some felons from obtaining because the job comes with access to drugs and sharp objects.
Riemer, director of support services for the Forestry and Fire Recruiting Program, said California should automatically expunge the records of eligible ex-convicts, as it does with those convicted of outdated marijuana crimes. And it should include their entire criminal record, he said.
“I think it was a spearhead of opportunity for people, but I don’t think it’s good enough,” he said of the culling law.
The law’s author, Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Reyes, D-San Bernardino, has since struggled to find out how many former inmates it has helped. She said many former inmates have contacted her office to praise the “life-changing impact of the legislation.”
The corrections department informs eligible inmates of the law but does not track waivers, said department spokeswoman Tessa Outhyse. Cal Fire, the court system and the state Department of Justice also could not say how many have had their records expunged.
In another effort, California in 2018 created a training program to help ex-prisoners get hired professionally.
The 18-month program is run by Cal Fire, the California Conservation Corps, the state Department of Corrections and the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition at the Ventura Training Center northwest of Los Angeles. Members of the Conservation Corps are also eligible. Excluded are former inmates convicted of arson or sex crimes.
Participants spend six months in life skills and firefighter training and the next year fighting or preventing fires and doing other community service, for which they are paid $1,905 a month. The center has four fire brigades with 60 participants.
In four years the program has cost more than $29.5 million, but has only 106 graduates.
Almost all have found professional work: 98 are with Cal Fire and three are with other agencies, including the Orange County Fire Authority and the U.S. Forest Service, according to corrections officials. Cal Fire gave slightly different figures.
But they are the lucky ones among the 277 who have participated since the program began. Another 111 participants, or 40 percent, dropped out 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 fire crews is increasing.
And the state is turning more to professional wildland firefighters, largely because inmate crews are less available after voters reduced criminal penalties and officials released thousands of lower-level inmates early to prevent coronavirus infections.
This August, about 1,670 inmates are in fire camps, including staff such as cooks and laundry workers, down about 40 percent from August 2019. The corrections department had budgeted for 152 crews this year, but brought in just 51, each with about 15-18 firefighters.
With fewer inmate crews, California is turning more to other services. 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 called the first all-hazards fire engine strike team operated by a state National Guard. Fire engines can respond to both wildfires and urban fires.
“We’ve recognized for a couple of years that because of early release, because of COVID, some other reasons, we have to do something,” said Battalion Chief Issac Sanchez, a Cal Fire spokesman.
Gabe Stern contributed to this story from Reno, Nevada. Stern is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow Stern on Twitter @gabestern326.