Thousands Of Inmates Serve Time Fighting The West's Forest Fires When there's a wildfire in California, odds are there are low-level offenders battling it. Inmates trained by pros and making $2 an hour have become a crucial element of the state's wildfire response.
NPR logo

Thousands Of Inmates Serve Time Fighting The West's Forest Fires

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/336309329/336905920" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Thousands Of Inmates Serve Time Fighting The West's Forest Fires

Thousands Of Inmates Serve Time Fighting The West's Forest Fires

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/336309329/336905920" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

California is seeing significantly more wildfires this year compared to last year, and helping battle those fires - thousands of inmates making $2 a day. [Correction: In the audio version of this story, as well as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say that inmates are paid $2 a day to fight the fires. In fact, they are paid $2 an hour.] From member station KQED in San Francisco, Alex Helmick reports on the crucial role of these low-level offenders.

ALEX HELMICK, BYLINE: This wildfire burning in the mountainous area of northern California near the Oregon border scorched nearly 13,000 acres. The ground is black and ashy gray, the air tastes like charcoal briquettes, and the temperatures here are unrelenting.

EMIR DUNN: First day we was out here, it was like 111, 115 - and that's not including the fire.

HELMICK: That's Emir Dunn. His orange fire suit swamps his slender body, but don't be fooled - just like the 900 or so inmate firefighters out here, he lugs more than 100 pounds of gear with him - an ax, food, water, fuel for a chainsaw.

Dunn and his crew are in mop up duty, looking for embers that could reignite. He's zipping a flattened hose though his gloved hands, scraping it along the dirt and burnt brush.

DUNN: Have we got water? Yep.

HELMICK: A few other states have similar inmate programs like Wyoming and Nevada, but California's is the largest, with about 4,000 inmates. These offenders are convicted of things like drug crimes, minor battery or robbery. Corrections officials say the program saves the state more than $100 million a year, because if there's a wildfire here, there are inmates battling it - trained by the pros, and they often work in crews of 16 and always with a professional firefighter in charge, like Capt. Josh Kitchens.

JOSH KITCHENS: These guys are some workhorses. When it's time to do a lot of grunt labor, that's what we're good at - so, get a lot of stuff done with 16 bodies.

HELMICK: Kitchens looks straight out of central casting - tall with a chiseled jaw and a stare of someone who doesn't play around. He runs Emir Dunn's crew. Guards from corrections dropped off the inmates miles away. They all hiked in here. So basically, Kitchens is alone with inmates who have axes and chainsaws in the middle of the forest that happens to be on fire, often working 24 hour shifts. But he's not worried.

KITCHENS: It's just like working with any other group of guys. You know, you kind of get to know their personalities and what they're capable of, and you put them in the positions that are most suited for them.

HELMICK: The inmates get time off their sentences for serving in the program - two days off for every day on a fire. When they're not battling the flames, they build flood barriers or clean up parks. In those cases, they get a day for a day. They'll spend nearly all of their sentences in a fire camp, where there's barrack-style sleeping quarters. When on a fire, they'll move to a base camp, where on-site warehouses and large white tents house the prisoners. There are many guards here, but you won't see guns, truncheons or barbed wire. An inmate firefighter Corey Sills says that creates a completely different vibe from prison.

COREY SILLS: There's an assembly where we have a formation in the mornings. And it was like, my second or third day, and the lieutenant comes out and he's giving a speech about his day and he goes, look, we'll treat you like men first, firefighters second and prisoners if we have to.

HELMICK: But it's not just the atmosphere that the inmates say help them thrive. For inmate firefighter Michael Dignan, the program's taught him about himself.

MICHAEL DIGNAN: You learn that there's stuff you can put yourself through that you never would've thought you'd been able to do.

HELMICK: Like what?

DIGNAN: You think you're done and you're just not. Or when you see that last hill you have to climb and, you know, you're telling yourself you can't make it, you end up at the top of it.

HELMICK: Dignan will need that perseverance. He's scheduled to be released soon. He says he'll go back home to Ohio and back to tree trimming - that's what he did before being locked up. For others, a few say they might try firefighting when they're released, but most say, no way. For NPR News, I'm Alex Helmick in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.