California is burning with greater frequency and ferocity. Nine of its ten largest wildfires on record took place in the past decade—a phenomenon driven by myriad climate-related factors. Last year, more than 2.5 million acres burned in the Golden State. This growing threat is placing heavy demands on the state’s resources, and it shows no signs of abating.
Since World War II, California has relied on a unique group of firefighters to battle its conflagrations: inmates. Prisoners who want to enter the Conservation Camp Program must meet security requirements and undergo two weeks of training. The all-inmate crews live in so-called fire camps and are led by personnel from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. They earn between $2.90 and $5 a day depending on their duties—and slightly more when actively fighting a fire. Though their numbers have fluctuated over the years, they have often comprised approximately one-third of California’s firefighting force.
The roots of these incarcerated firefighters’ story date back more than a century; reliance on prison labor in California is almost as old as the state itself. Soon after the Gold Rush–era population boom and California’s entry into the Union in 1850, San Quentin State Prison was built by inmates held on nearby ships. In the early 1900s, inmates in road camps labored to meet the demands created by a growing—and increasingly mobile—population.
Fighting wildfires requires a different approach than extinguishing structural fires, which mainly affect residential or commercial buildings. First responders combat these infernos both from the air and on the ground, spending days or even weeks in the proximity of blazes that devour acres of vegetation and can morph in size and speed in unpredictable ways. In California, inmate firefighters form handcrews, creating breaks in vegetation and carving out swaths of barren soil that deny flames fuel to go further. They eke these precious perimeters out by hand, using chainsaws, shovels and axes.
“We are right on [the] fire’s edge,” says Justin Schmollinger, who oversees the Conservation Camp Program for Cal Fire. “… You’re down there at times fighting fire with hand tools and you’re seeing a lot of fire with no water, so it gets intense.”
It’s grueling, dangerous work. Four inmate firefighters have perished in the line of duty in recent years. Shawna Jones was struck by a boulder. Matthew Beck was killed by a 3,000-pound tree, Frank Anaya by a running chainsaw and Anthony Colacino by heart failure after collapsing on a training hike. Their names are among the inmates honored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Inmate firefighters are four times more likely to be injured by objects than their professional counterparts and eight times more likely to suffer injuries related to smoke inhalation, according to a 2018 Time report. Records reviewed by Time showed that more than 1,000 required hospital care during the preceding five-year period.
Jaime Lowe, author of the book Breathing Fire, which profiles Jones and other female inmates, says some of the women she spoke to face lifelong health issues as a direct result of their work. “They don’t get money to help with health care if they’ve got back pain or blown out a knee,” she adds. “And yet they’ve put their bodies on the line.”
Such sacrifices have often been obscured by the fact that they were borne by prisoners. News reports over the years provide scattered glimpses of inmates injured or killed fighting wildfires. In the San Joaquin Valley in 1958, an inmate was “consumed” when a blaze suddenly surrounded him. A 1961 letter from inmates protesting an article that characterized their contributions as having “scraped the bottom of the barrel” for firefighters highlighted the condition of a man in San Quentin Hospital, “where he will remain, perhaps for the rest of his life.”
But the program is also an equalizer of sorts, melding perceptions of firefighters, who are almost universally lauded, and inmates, who are as readily stigmatized, into one. “Fire doesn’t know if you’re a volunteer, if you’re paid, if you’re an inmate,” says Schmollinger.
The same can be said for people facing crises. In a letter commending inmates on a “damn fine job” of fighting a 1961 fire in Guerneville, a resident relayed his encounter with a local woman who didn’t know the identity of the men she profusely praised. “I told her that you [were] convicts,” he wrote. “She said, ‘I don’t care who they are. They saved my house.’”
Former inmate Adam Azevedo says his experience as a firefighter was transformative in shaping his own identity. “I don’t want to be hyperbolic here, but I would say that going to camp the first time gave me a sense of value for myself,” he explains. Recalling the trust of his leaders and saving the lives of two people, he says it “started at least a belief in myself that I could be good at something good, good at the right thing.”
Proponents of the program emphasize the relative freedom; better conditions in fire camps, where inmates can reside for up to seven years; and opportunities to learn new skills. (Criminal records have made many Cal Fire roles inaccessible for formerly incarcerated firefighters, but a bill signed in 2020 eased the barriers for those pursuing jobs upon their release.) Critics, on the other hand, argue that the initiative exploits prisoners. For their difficult and dangerous labor, inmates earn just dollars a day. Lowe points out that while many thrive in the program, it’s “one of the hardest jobs in the world.” She adds, “[It’s] incredibly problematic that the baseline [of prison] is so incredibly bad people are willing to risk lives to avoid it. … This is a choice of the lesser of two evils.”
Those baseline conditions blur the line between incentive and disincentive for those who volunteer. Despite coming to love firefighting, Azevedo recalls, “I had no idea what was waiting for me when I went there. I just knew I would be not in a prison dealing with riots and stabbings and drugs of all of these things.” Before entering the program during his second incarceration, he had to get informal permission from the prison yard’s shot caller—or risk having a hit placed on him.
California’s reliance on inmate labor to fight fires is closely linked to the state’s precipitous population growth early in the 20th century and corresponding expansion into rural areas.
“Any increase in fires that is not related to, say, climate crises has to do with the expansion of our suburban-rural interfaces, the places where settled California meets unsettled California,” says Volker Janssen, a historian at California State University, Fullerton.
Schmollinger also notes the unique risks posed by both California’s topography and its history of human settlement. Residential neighborhoods are nestled into natural land in a way that makes them especially susceptible to wildfires. Other states “can burn 100,000 acres and let nature take its course. Here you can’t do that because you’re going to lose communities.”
In 1915, California’s population was booming, and with it the demand to expand roads into inhospitable terrain. The state used inmates for the hard work of building the state’s roads, which were carved out of mountainsides with picks and shovels.
This initiative fed the notion that relying on prisoners in this way was both good for the state and good for the person, as well as the idea that labor—particularly outdoors—promoted virtue. State authorities turned to road camps, writes Lloyd Thorpe in Men to Match the Mountains, to relieve “overcrowding and enervating idleness in the institutions.” But they also believed that “a convict might be eased into a more open setting, for his own good in getting used to the outside.”
The hardships of the Great Depression ushered in a new era for the camp concept, albeit for a very different target population. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation creating the Civilian Conservation Corps in April 1933, utilizing unemployed men to improve forest lands. The camps built for these laborers were, according to Thorpe, “forerunners” for inmate camps. In a fireside chat, Roosevelt told listeners that “we are conserving not only our natural resources, but our human resources”—language later echoed when describing prisoners.
Those camps were soon transformed again by another shock. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 spurred fears of fire as a weapon of warfare—one to which California was especially vulnerable. This led to a tripling of the budget for the Division of Forestry (known today as Cal Fire). But the exodus of men either drafted or enlisted as soldiers hit these units hard. With the dearth of firefighters, state officials tapped into existing encampments where prisoners already worked on conservation-related projects. These inmates also proved adept at fighting fires.
Writing of being called upon in an emergency to help contain a 1944 fire in Southern California near their forestry camp, inmates posited that they were “veritable gold to Uncle Sam due to the manpower shortage.”
Uncle Sam—or at least the state of California—agreed. The Rainbow Conservation Camp, the first of its kind dedicated to firefighting, opened in 1946 near San Diego. It was administered through an agreement between corrections and forestry departments, a model still in effect today.
The growth of camps also dovetailed with a popular view of incarceration as a vehicle for rehabilitation, not punishment. From roads camps to fire camps, “it’s really malleable,” says Philip Goodman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto in Canada. “You have periods in which, after World War II, [prison management was] … really eager to position California as this progressive leader in corrections.”
“The whole progressive project,” a 1957 report by the Division of Forestry boasted, “is one in which the State of California can well be proud.”
Despite the enthusiasm of prison officials, communities in which these new rural encampments were placed were often skeptical or downright hostile. In 1950, a proposed camp near Meadow Vista, a community nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, spurred an outcry from residents. One woman implored Governor Earl Warren to “intercede” on their behalf, writing that if the camp were built, “our hearts will be filled with fear and distrust of every stranger we see, and our doors kept locked and barred at night.”
During this expansion period, forestry and corrections officials made a concerted effort to convince communities where camps were being built, using one-on-one visits, tours of successful camps, town meetings and courting of local media to highlight the program’s value.
In Meadow Vista, however, State Forester DeWitt Nelson was forced to reverse course, writing to county officials that “regretfully … we do not feel we can risk the success of the program” by proceeding.
Living in areas prone to wildfire, such communities needed the firefighters’ services. But the “not in my backyard” mindset often prevailed. Janssen summarizes this logically flawed reaction: “We don’t think they’re safe to live with, but they make places safe to live.”
The work performed by the firefighters underscores the trust placed in the inmates who qualify for the program. (Those convicted of arson or sexual offenses are ineligible; other requirements center on the prisoners’ custodial levels.) Azevedo recalls his mother’s reaction during a birthday dinner in the camp setting—a far cry from previous prison visits: “My mom said, ‘I can’t believe they’re giving you a knife.’ I said, ‘Mom, I run a chainsaw 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. They’re not worried about me having a knife.’”
Despite hesitation in some communities, the camps program received its biggest boost in the postwar era from Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, who called for an expansion of it in his 1959 inaugural address. Over the next seven years, the number of camps grew to 42 spread across the state. During this period, a 1961 state legislative report noted, the term “conservation camp” was adopted because the “emphasis of the program was shifted to conservation of both men and resources,” in a refresh of FDR’s Depression-era words.
The report also touted the rehabilitative aspect, based more on philosophy than data: “[I]t would be foolish to save our trees but lose the fight to save the men from further wasteful lives.”
In 1964, Brown had the opportunity to bask in the success of his initiative. The community of Crestline in the San Bernadino Mountains held a reception honoring the inmates of nearby Pilot Rock Conservation Camp, whom they credited with helping save their town from a fire years earlier. They too had initially been skeptical of the camp in their midst; now, they were erecting a statue honoring the firefighters. Chamber of Commerce president William Bieber applauded their efforts: “It is high time someone recognizes the value of their work.”
In remarks at the festivities, the governor recalled the petitions he had received when the new camp was proposed. Crestline symbolized the converted.
A few years later, this era of optimism and expansion came to an end. In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan promised in his inaugural address to “squeeze and cut and trim until we reduce the cost of government.” His subsequent 10 percent across-the-board budget cuts were not directly targeted at the camps but impacted them deeply, shrinking camp sizes and shelving plans for new locations.
The shift was not limited to the fiscal realm. In the decades that followed, gauzy language about rehabilitation was supplanted by tough-on-crime rhetoric by state and national leaders. The broader focus of criminal justice was on the punitive, not the preventative. In a speech that year, Reagan told the National Sheriffs’ Association that “I am also a little tired of those who proclaim that we must pour so much money into a community program, or enact this or that legislation, or else we face a wave of riots and unrest.”
The United States’ incarceration rate increased more than fourfold between the 1970s and early 2000s, in part due to harsher sentences for drug-related and non-violent crimes—a pool of inmates eligible for fire camp. The Conservation Camp Program endured, but officials emphasized the benefits to the state, such as cost savings and conservation, rather than the welfare of the individual prisoner.
Perhaps the program’s durability can be attributed to the unusual, even ambivalent, place it occupies in fundamental debates about criminal justice. “The left tends … to focus on jobs, rehabilitation, the value of it to the people,” says Goodman. “I think sometimes the political right is focusing on cost savings and maybe deservingness. … The reasons vary, but the appeal seems to really cut across.”
In 1983, Camp Rainbow was home to another first: female crews, a change that came after two inmates filed suit. They faced skepticism. One official told the Los Angeles Times that “women aren’t as strong,” while another lamented that “women are more emotional” than male inmates. A study of female firefighters under the same conditions belied those perceptions. “This is one of the best opportunities women ever had for showing what they could do,” an inmate told the Times.
California’s inmate firefighter ranks have plummeted in recent years, due in part to measures to reduce the prison population under Governor Gavin Newsom and hastened by the early release of non-violent offenders when Covid-19 hit. In 2011, more than 4,000 incarcerated individuals were in the program; currently, there are approximately 1,600. For budgetary purposes, eight camps have been consolidated since 2020.
Still, if more than 75 years of history—not to mention the pressures of climate and population—are any indication, inmate firefighters will remain a mainstay in California’s firefighting force.
Bieber’s words in 1964 in Crestline could easily be said in 2022: “They are helping to preserve California’s wealth for the future—and they are risking their lives, toiling and sweating to do this.”