On September 11, Otila Rogers, a former inmate who spent most of the past decade in and out of California's prison system, received a phone call she'd been waiting for since March.
CAL Fire, the state's largest fire department, wanted to fly her to an airbase in Redding, California to prepare supplies to fight the Bobcat Fire, a wildfire currently raging in the San Gabriel Mountains which overlook Los Angeles from the east.
The assignment, which came during the worst wildfire season in the state's recorded history, is Rogers' first as a certified wildland firefighter, but not her first time fighting California wildfires. Rogers carried out two prison sentences between 2014 and 2018 in the state's fire camps for women, operating a chainsaw while fighting dozens of wildfires in California's backcountry for $1 an hour, and clearing brush for $3 a day during off-season.
"At fire camp, my captains always laughed and said, 'You're so good at this. Why don't you keep doing it when you're out of here?'" Rogers told me on the phone. "The work changed my mentality on life—I loved it. I could smell the fresh air, have the sun hitting my skin, and touch a tree if I wanted to."
After she was released on parole in 2018, she said she didn't think she could continue fighting wildfires, and struggled to find meaningful work in Los Angeles. (Her record, a combination of drug trafficking and arms dealing offenses, precluded her from applying to most jobs, she said.)
"I didn’t have any references or know the right people. Being a felon and having strikes—my whole life since 18, I was in and out of prison and jail—I thought there was no hope for me when I got out," she said. "What fire department is going to hire an ex-felon?"
Otila Rogers, second from left, working on a fire line in December 2019.
California's reliance on lowly-paid incarcerated people to fight fires is well documented, as is the fact that institutional barriers prevent people from being able to become full-time professional firefighters after they are released from prison. Many of the firefighters that Motherboard spoke to found the work meaningful and life-changing. But the sub-minimum wages, which activists and abolitionists have compared to slave labor, and the fact that they are performing inherently essential and dangerous work cannot be ignored.
The ongoing wildfires blazing across the West Coast were sparked by intense, dry lightning storms in August. The destruction has had California and Oregon's governors pleading with foreign governments and other states for additional fire crews. California has received aid from firefighters flown in from Israel, Mexico, and Australia, as well as six states.
Mainstream news outlets have reported that the labor shortage stems from California Governor Gavin Newsom's decision to release hundreds of inmate firefighters in May to prevent the spread of Coronavirus in prisons—saying while it's good news for the criminal justice system, the decision was an imprudent one given record-breaking wildfires are occurring more often. At the start of wildfire season last year, there were 2,772 incarcerated people in the state's conservation fire camps. As of this week, that number had sunk to 1,996, according to a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The current labor shortage, in large part, was brought on by the state itself. Thousands of Californians who have served time in the state's Conservation Camp Program have the training and experience to fight ongoing wildfires, but many institutional barriers prevent them from doing so. Since 1946, California has relied on prison labor to fight wildfires. Inmate firefighters typically make up anywhere between 50 to 80 percent of fire personnel on any given wildfire small or large across the state, and they're some of the state's most exploited workers, earning $1 an hour to risk their lives on the fire line. Six inmate firefighters in California have died over the past four decades.
Once inmate firefighters are released from prison, the barriers to pursuing a career as a firefighter are enormous. EMT certification, for example, excludes people with felonies and certain misdemeanors. Parole requirements prevent people from travelling to remote areas, making it impossible for them to fight wildfires. Meanwhile, CAL Fire and municipal fire departments in California, such as the Los Angeles Fire Department, do not accept applicants with felony records.
Brandon Smith, the executive director of a nonprofit organization called Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program that trains and mentors formerly and currently incarcerated firefighters in California for careers in the wildland and forestry sector, says that incarcerated firefighters have been abandoned by the state, an egregious error considering the extent of California's annual environmental disasters.
"It's a good thing people were released. But [CAL Fire chief] Thom Porter and Governor Gavin Newsom are saying we don't have any more firefighters," Smith told Motherboard. "As of last week, they said there's no more available fire crews. Now they're requesting support from every single state and other countries. No offense but there's a group of people sitting at home in California who are ready and willing to do this work right now. There are thousands of people who can go fill this space."
Formerly incarcerated women, in particular, face the double whammy of overcoming criminal records and institutional sexism, and rarely end up back on the fire line again. In the United States, women make up about 12 percent of civilian wildland firefighters. Aging fire stations often don't accommodate women, and the industry still has many people who wrongly believe that women lack the physical capabilities to be good firefighters.
"Sadly to say, there is little diversity in California's fire departments," Smith said. "Professional firefighters are mostly white men. Meanwhile, the people in fire camps are men of color and women."
The California prison system designates three of its 44 fire camps, Rainbow, Malibu, and Puerta La Cruz, for incarcerated women. Forty-nine incarcerated women firefighters currently remain in the system. Earlier this year, 265 women were serving time in the camps.
"Many of us know everything about being a wildland firefighter," said Rogers, who grew up in a Samoan community in South-Central Los Angeles. "But unfortunately it's about who you know, not what you know."
Rogers, who fought the 2017 Lilac Fire and 2015 Valley Fire, vividly remembers viewing the wreckage of past fires as an inmate. "We would drive through towns, seeing houses burned to the ground. You feel this sadness. You could see everyone praising firefighters, drawing pictures for us, 'We love you guys, we appreciate you guys.' Those people don’t see you as an inmate or a prisoner. They never judged us. It triggered us to be like 'Oh we’re loved, not everyone hates us.'"
Krista Garcia, another formerly incarcerated firefighter who served a seven-and-a-half month prison sentence at Puerta La Cruz, a women's fire camp near San Diego, shared a similar story with Motherboard. "I fell in love with firefighting, being part of a community and giving back, but it really sucks that prisoners get paid so little. It's our life too and we chose to go to the camps," she said.
"When I got out, I wanted to get back into wildland firefighting, but it wasn't something I could rush into," she continued. "I was fighting to get back my three children, and I got a job catering food. After I got off parole, I moved to South Dakota to get a fresh start."
Last year, Garcia moved back to the Los Angeles area, and now is on the path to receiving her wildfire firefighter certification as a student at the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program.
On September 11, Newsom signed into law a new bill that could bring more incarcerated firefighters back into wildfire forestry post-prison. The law will allow California's inmate firefighters, excluding some convicted of violent or sex crimes, to have their records expunged, making them eligible for EMT certification and other positions in municipal fire departments they previously had been excluded from.
Criminal justice activists say they appreciate the state's initiative with the caveat that it isn't a full solution; expungement only wipes the most recent felony from someone's record, is not a formal pardon, and state and federal agencies have not said whether they'll accept the state's expungement.
The state's most powerful firefighters union CAL Fire Local 2881, a statewide federation of police unions, and some state prosecutors have opposed the law, saying it would put people in need of emergency assistance at risk.
Smith, the founder of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, himself a formerly incarcerated firefighter who was released in 2014, says it took him two years to figure out how to apply to work as a firefighter after getting released from Wasco State Prison.
"Firefighting is a close knit family. Because of that, you have to hop into the network, know who to talk to, and how to apply for the job. That was never available to us," Smith, who is Black, said. "There's none of that for people of color or women or urban communities. I didn't know about wildfire firefighting until I went to prison, even though I grew up in the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains in Altadena, California."
Since the law passed on September 11, Smith says his organization—which has helped more than 100 formerly incarcerated people transition to careers in firefighting since its 2015 founding for free—has received hundreds of inquiries from current and former inmates seeking pathways to a career in firefighting.
Rogers met Smith at an American Jobs Center in Compton, California in 2019, after bouncing between jobs while completing parole. "Brandon walked in and gave a speech about firefighting, and I was like, 'Hey do you accept ex-felons?" He was like 'yeah.' And I was like, 'I am so interested.' I was tripping out, talking to a real life firefighter again."
Shortly after, she enrolled in his wildfire and forestry training program. When she received her red card certification to perform tasks on wildfires in California in December 2019, her extended family showed up to her graduation ceremony, adorning her in a crown, leis, and flowers. Until last week, she had been working in a warehouse and waiting to get a fire call from one of the state's fire departments for an assignment.
Otila Rogers next to a Bureau of Land Management truck, which is used to provide support on fight wildfires.
We spoke, on the phone, two days before her assignment began.
“I'll be making inventories, driving out to different fires in a big beautiful firetruck and giving them supplies for different fires," she said. "I used to be like, 'Damn I don't know what to do. No one's going to take me seriously as a firefighter.'"
Shannon Clark, another formerly incarcerated fighter who served time in the Malibu Fire Camp for women, and is also now training at the Fire and Forestry Recruitment program to become a certified wildland firefighter.
"When I started firefighting I knew I had found what I had been searching for my whole life. It was like this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I haven't found that feeling anywhere else," she said.
Clark, who grew up in Santa Clarita, California, playing volleyball, soccer, softball, and camping as a teenager, went to the prison for the first time when she was 18 for a residential burglary, and spent the next decade in and out of the system, eventually landing in a conservation camp.
"Any major fire in Los Angeles between 2015 and 2018 I was on. I got out in 2018 and had no idea how to keep doing it. I'm a little bit older and didn't have the connections. I got jobs waitressing, in the parks department, and at an aerodynamics factory," she said. "I didn't think it was possible to continue because of my record. It's hindered me in the past."
Smith, the fire and forestry recruitment director, says that benefits of having former firefighter inmates work as career firefighters are social, economic, and environmental—echoing the Green New Deal, but law-and-order advocates have skewed public perception toward the opposite conclusion.
"The biggest issue is public perception. Folks are afraid of previously incarcerated people. But it's like 'Sorry we were already protecting your houses while we were incarcerated,’" Smith said. "This is a conversation about criminal justice and the environment. And there's a lot of unique ways we can help out. One of the biggest challenges in the west is that there's too many trees, we need a labor force just to do forest thinning projects. You have utility companies charged with preventing wildfires. I say, instead of hiring private contractors why don't you hire us?"