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Know the West

Former California prisoners may become professional wildfire fighters

Amid a raging fire season and pandemic, the Western U.S. seeks experienced fire crews to battle its conflagrations.


A crew of incarcerated firefighters take a break while hiking out from clearing a fire line on the Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex, in Healdsburg, California on August 23, 2020.

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Over the past 30 years, some 2,000 prisoners have participated in Arizona’s inmate wildfire program. Prisoners often take pride in giving back to society, risking their lives to battle blazes for less than $2 an hour. With the climate crisis and historic fire suppression making fire seasons longer and more destructive, prison crews save Western states tens of millions of dollars yearly. In Arizona, some inmates can join state forestry crews after release, but that’s not true for all Western states (“When Arizona catches fire, prisoners step up,” 8/5/19).


Now, some members of inmate crews in California will be able to have their records expunged after prison, making them eligible to work as firefighters. Their professional experience is desperately needed: In March, California responded to COVID-19 cases in prisons by expediting parole for some prisoners and quarantining others, reducing inmate crews by half. Then, in August and September, hundreds of fires blazed across California, including three of the four largest in the state’s history, creating a firefighter shortage.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News. Email her at mayak@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor