Why Incarcerated Firefighters Struggle to Go Pro After Prison

As climate change worsens fire season, we need all the firefighters we can get. Why is it so hard for formerly incarcerated firefighters to find work?
​VICE News

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There’s no such thing as the California wildfire season anymore. Now there’s just the California wildfire year.

This past January, during what would typically be the wettest, least fire-prone time of year, a massive blaze swept through Big Sur, scorching nearly 700 acres of coastal terrain. The National Weather Service called it “pretty surreal fire behavior.”


Needless to say, firefighters who can combat these blazes are in high demand. To supplement their professional crews, Western states have long relied on incarcerated labor to help fight wildfires. In California, incarcerated men and women are deployed from dozens of “fire camps” to build fire breaks and provide other mission-critical services, like clearing brush, and sometimes battling blazes directly. On some wildfires, more than half the firefighters wear orange jumpsuits that identify them as incarcerated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

It’s not surprising that some of them would think about firefighting as a career once they are released from prison—after all, they’ve already been doing the work. Yet there are numerous obstacles to finding second-chance employment on professional firefighting crews.

The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program set out to change that, and since 2015 it has guided formerly incarcerated people who served in fire camps through the red tape, and into full-time jobs at state and local fire departments.

“I was one of those individuals,” says FFRP co-founder Royal Ramey of his own journey from incarceration to fighting fires for a living. “I had limited resources and options for employment when I came home.”

It took a few years after his release, but eventually Ramey did get hired on a California fire crew. He found himself working on fire lines alongside some of the very same people he’d been incarcerated with. They recognized him and began asking questions about how he had made the transition from an incarcerated firefighter to a professional one. Soon after, he and another formerly incarcerated firefighter named Brandon Smith began what would become the FFRP.

Now, the FFRP runs training and job assistance programs, as well as helping formerly incarcerated Californians earn the certifications they’ll need to be hired onto fire crews.

Yet even more than the training and certifications, Ramey says his organization offers a path to building a new sense of self, guided by others who have surmounted similar hurdles as they re-enter society after incarceration.

“So I think a lot of folks that have been in prison have some type of trauma that they are dealing with,” says Ramey. “But then coming to the FFRP, we can be able to give you that hands-on support and understanding of like, ‘I’ve been where you've been. I understand how you feel.’”