Prisoners Known as 'Angels in Orange' Help Fight California Wildfires

While some may see them as felons in jumpsuits, California residents of cities affected by threatening wildfires know inmate firefighters as the "angels in orange."
by | September 30, 2015 AT 10:11 AM

By Katrina Cameron

While some may see them as felons in jumpsuits, California residents of cities affected by threatening wildfires know inmate firefighters as the "angels in orange."

"I think the best part is when you get off a shift and you're cruising through the town and there are little old ladies or little old men going 'Thank you, firefighters,'" said inmate firefighter Culvin May, 39, from the Delta Conservation Camp in Suisun City.

There are 196 inmate fire crews that perform more than 3 million hours of emergency response work annually, making the program an essential tool in the state's firefighting system, according to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. Inmate firefighters make up about one-third of the Cal Fire crews responding to wildfires throughout the state.

This year has been particularly taxing on firefighters with the uptick in the number of fires as a result of the drought.

"The program itself is a critical component of our firefighting system in California," Berlant said. "It provides a huge workforce in helping us contain wildfires."

May is among 3,800 low-level offenders, including 225 women, who volunteer and train to work on the front lines of wildfires or in conservation camps year-round, said Bill Sessa, spokesman for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. There are 43 volunteer firefighter camps throughout the state, which saves $80 million to $100 million per year through the Conservation Camp Program, Sessa said.

California's volunteer inmate firefighters benefit as much from their service as the state does from their assistance. Compared with their fellow inmates, the pay is the highest among state prison jobs, the food is better and the inmates feel like they are trusted to do something worthwhile.

The work is rigorous and often dangerous, but many inmates agree the job is gratifying and beats the alternative -- being locked up 24/7 in a state prison.

So far this year, inmates have responded alongside Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service to 6,783 wildfires that have burned 543,161 acres.

Inmates from the Delta Conservation Camp were on the front lines of several blazes this summer including the 75,781-acre Valley Fire, the 25,118-acre Jerusalem Fire, the 69,438-acre Rocky Fire and dozens of lightning-sparked blazes in Humboldt County, according to Cal Fire. Delta Crew No. 2 has worked 24-hour shifts while responding to the Valley Fire, Sessa said.

Volunteering

To join a fire camp, inmates must apply to volunteer, endure the same four-week training as Cal Fire workers and have the right temperament, Sessa said.

"The firefighter inmates have to meet all the same mental and physical standards as civilian firefighters because when they're on the fire line, the fire doesn't discriminate," he said.

On average, inmate firefighters earn $2 a day in camp, plus $1 an hour when fighting fires. They receive two days off their sentence for every day they volunteer.

Camp crew member Joshua Coover, 34, a plumber from Whittier in Southern California, volunteered because being at a fire camp gives him "more freedom." Although he has a job waiting for him when he is released, he said he knows other inmates can benefit from being an inmate firefighter.

"I was blessed, I have a career on the outside, so I have a job and skills," Coover said. "I have work ethics already, but a lot of people don't and this gives them an opportunity to improve on these things. ... There's a lot of advantage to being at fire camp."

After training, 15 to 17 inmates are assigned to a crew and a conservation camp, Sessa said. When they're not on the fire lines, inmates are working on fire prevention projects such as clearing brush, thinning the forest and maintaining hiking trails.

A day's work

A couple of weeks ago when there were no fires to put out nearby, Delta Crew No. 2 worked on clearing dead trees and hazardous vegetation at the Lafayette Reservoir.

Cal Fire crew Capt. John Layton directed the conservation crew as members cleared highly flammable brush around structures and cut hazardous dead trees. Layton directs the crew year-round to create fire breaks and during the warm months on the fire lines.

May earns about $1.96 a day using a saw to cut trees and branches. The pay is a fraction of what he would earn at his construction job "on the outside," but it's a big improvement from his previous job as a dishwasher at Susanville Prison, where he was paid 8 cents a day.

Like a well-oiled machine, the crew cleared brush as they worked on a grade project for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. May swiftly sawed down trees, as Coover pulled the tree bits aside and Ryan Tracy, 29, acted as the crew's sharp set of eyes. The remaining inmates used tools, such as Pulaskis and shovels, to break down and stack up vegetation.

At $2.63 a day, Tracy is the highest paid inmate as the lead member who oversees his fellow inmates' work.

Camp life

Coover, 34, said the Delta Conservation Camp, surrounded by a wind-energy farm, is "like being in Palm Springs" compared with a normal state prison, he said.

The camp is surrounded by a short fence in Suisun City and houses about 120 inmates from Susanville Prison, where the Delta campers were serving their sentence along with about 700 inmates.

While the inmates are in camp, they are supervised by correctional officers from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for security, Sessa said. The crews work under the direction of a Cal Fire captain.

Though rare, there are occasional escapes.

"It doesn't happen very often -- probably two or three (times) a year. They are always found and almost always within the first 24 hours," he said.

The camps have exercise equipment and a basketball court to help inmates stay in shape for the fire season, Sessa said. To boost their much-needed calorie count, the inmates are fed more nutritious meals compared to those in the state prisons.

But Coover said "the best feeling in the world" is seeing the hazardous vegetation cleared behind him after his crew worked all night to create fire breaks.

"It just makes you feel like you accomplished something and you're helping people out," he said. "That's the main part. You're saving lives, saving structures."

Their hard work doesn't go unnoticed by residents, who show their appreciation after being spared.

"The best feeling is when we get off the fire; all the signs you see that say 'thank you, firefighters,'" Coover said. "They even refer to us as the 'angels in orange.'"

When May is released in about seven months, he plans on returning to his longtime construction career as well as volunteering for the Butte County Fire Department. "I plan on going back to what I know and giving back at the same time."

(c)2015 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)