Out of Lock-up and Into the Fire

California Correctional Department inmates help fight wildfires

Inmates at the site of a wildfire in Southern California's Orange County Alex Cohen, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Alex Cohen, NPR

Many firefighters get into the profession because it's something they've dreamed of since childhood... but others get into it through crime. For years, California has trained inmates from correctional facilities to fight fires. Often times, these prisoners go on to use their skills as professional firefighters once they're released.

When I arrived today at the base camp for the Freeway Complex Fire, I spotted several groups of inmate firefighters right away — they're usually the ones dressed in orange jumpsuits.

I spoke with one of these firefighters, 43-year old Michelle Chicarelli of the Rainbow Conservation Camp.

She told me she'd been Rainbow since August serving a sentence on drug charges and went through three months of training before she fought her first fire. It was terrifying at first.

"We're climbing up terrain that's crazy, stuff that you would never do," she tells me.

But she says she now feels confident when faced with blazes. This morning was hard
for her emotionally, however. She grew up in Orange County and says it was heartbreaking to see homes being burnt to the ground.

"I saw one of my best friends from high school running across the street with his daughter and I couldn't say anything to him!"

Michelle says she's also worried about her parents since she currently has no way of getting in touch with them to see if they were able to safely evacuate.

"It's devastating to worry about people," Michelle told me, though she said she was energized by the fact that she was protecting people she knew. "I'm here to save my community/"

She says she'll be released from Rainbow early next year... and hopes to never have to face another fire.



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