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The Inmates Fighting California’s Wildfires

It does not matter the race, sexual identity, social class, or background of the individuals who are risking their lives to fight against the raging wildfires in California; amidst the flames, they are all heroes. Among the thousands of brave people stands a group of women dressed in orange, fire-resistant clothing who, despite their appearance, are unlike their fellow volunteers but are still heroes nonetheless. These women, who show up and perform strenuous and dangerous duties, are prisoners.

The incarcerated women choose to partake in the work that they do. They must pass a rigorous fitness test in order to qualify for training. The training period for inmates, which minimally takes three weeks to complete, is significantly less extensive than the three-year training period required of civilian firefighters.

Inmate involvement is crucial. ‘‘Any fire you go on statewide, whether it be small or large, the inmate hand crews make up anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total fire personnel,” Lieutenant Keith Radey, commander at a women’s training facility, told the New York Times.

The incarcerated women are paid minimally for their efforts. The median wage in 2014 for a typical firefighter in California, according to Business Insider, was $68,350 per year. The female inmates are paid only $2 per day. Yet their salary is substantially greater than the 8-95 cents California inmates typically earn per day, thereby making the firefighting position a coveted one amongst inmates.

Still, many inmates say that they would still volunteer even without the pay. ‘‘It feels good when you see kids with signs saying, ‘Thank you for saving my house, thank you for saving my dog.’ It feels good that you saved somebody’s home, you know?” said Marguet Jones, an inmate arrested for first degree burglary. The feeling of helping people is enough payment for some women.

Sandra Welsh, an inmate at Malibu Conservation Camp, told NBC that she chose to volunteer in order to give her children something to be proud of. “This prison trip has taken a lot out of their lives and I wanted them to have something to hold onto,” Welsh said. “My mom’s a firefighter. I might be an inmate firefighter, but I’m a firefighter.”

Despite the monetary and personal benefits, many incarcerated women choose not to volunteer to fight fires because of the dangers that accompany the job. Shawna Lynn Jones, a 22-year-old inmate, lost her life in February 2016 while battling a wildfire in California.

Jones was crushed by falling rock on the Mulholland Highway. She had been the first female inmate in California history to be killed while fighting a fire. Her story serves as a warning to other incarcerated women who consider volunteering.

Nevertheless, many of the prisoners find a passion for firefighting and learn a trade that they can put to use once they serve their sentences. There is an issue with this concept, however, because Los Angeles County Fire has rules against hiring felons. Because of this, activists like David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project are opposed to the inmates participating in this line of work. “If these people are safe to be out and about and carrying axes and chain saws,” Fathi said, “maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.’’

Despite the dangers, many women find the job to be immensely rewarding. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, C.D.C.R, argues that the fire program is intended to serve as a rehabilitation effort for the inmates.

“We basically fight fires and it gives us a chance to better ourselves mentally and physically,” Latoya Najar told NBC News.

Featured Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region by Flickr

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