The Fire Team Fighting to Build a Better Life After Prison

Otila Rogers and Brandon Smith are leading by example to inspire incarcerated individuals through fighting wildfires.
December 21, 2020, 2:00pm
​Image: Michelle Urra
Image: Michelle Urra
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“On a scale out of 100, it’d be 1,000,” said Otila Rogers, a full-time firefighter currently serving with the Northern California Fire Cache, when asked how fulfilling her job is.

In addition to deploying in the field, battling flames face-to-face, Rogers also helps run logistics for the relief team in northern California. She ensures teams have gear and tells them where they need to be and when. 

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Rogers said that she’s filled with pride knowing her job directly helps others stay safe. Her story is one of inspiration because, for the past decade, she had been in and out of prison—but that didn’t stop her. 

“I want to use my story to inspire other girls because they know the old me, they know the past me, and then they see me now,” Rogers said. “People get out and think, ‘I’ll just go live with my mom and get a regular job,’ but there’s more than just a regular job. Reach for the top. The sky’s the limit.”

California just suffered one of the worst wildfire seasons on record and has historically relied on people like Rogers to help keep flames at bay. As Motherboard previously reported, incarcerated firefighters are paid $1 an hour in the field. Still, Rogers said her work in the backcountry while serving time in prison instilled a sense of hope and motivation for her life post-sentence.

“The biggest challenge for me was my attitude at first,” Rogers said. “I thought people saw me and judged me for all the tattoos I have. I thought no one was going to give me a chance until I met FFRP.”

The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) is a non-profit driven to aid formerly and currently incarcerated individuals interested in fire prevention work. Their members come from conservation camps, or “fire camps,” which correctional facilities send inmates to during sentences. At these camps, inmates respond to everything from floods to wildfires. FFRP promotes and enhances skills workers learn at fire camps to help make life after prison a smoother transition. 

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Brandon Smith is the organization’s co-founder and executive director. Once an inmate himself, Smith also felt immense passion for his work and knew he could make a difference for people in similar situations. 

“The state of California—pre, post, and in COVID—is heavily reliant on incarcerated people to fight fires and there is no clear pathway for people to transition over after prison,” Smith said. “So my whole purpose is to help people find their pathway, since there isn’t a clear one, and move forward.”

Smith said he is hyper-focused on highlighting the need for such work in the state. Laws like AB-2147, a bill making post-release life slightly easier for fire camp workers, have provided some assistance, but Smith said historically underrepresented groups require guidance in actually implementing these changes.  

“The challenge is there are so many people out there who need support and there’s such a need for them, too,” Smith said. “A lot of people may think this law is the end-all-be-all but it’s not. So we at FFRP consider ourselves to be a family that goes and supports our people.”

Smith and Rogers said they view each other as a family as well as inspirational colleagues. FFRP seems to have this effect on individuals. According to both, the camaraderie in the program is unmatched and this furthers participants’ rapturous enthusiasm for the organization. 

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“Being an ex-convict and having that street mentality, when I met FFRP they taught me something different,” Rogers said. “They taught me how to act like a normal person in this society. They taught me work ethic, they taught me etiquette. I love FFRP and I like to talk about it everywhere I go.”

Currently, the program has a waitlist with more than 80 people wishing to join their ranks. Rogers is acting as an informal spokeswoman for the non-profit. She says her main goal is to encourage, specifically, more women to join. Through Facebook messages alone, she said she’s almost overwhelmed by the number of people reaching out to her, but is driven to help the right people join the nonprofit. 

Towards the end of our call, both Smith and Rogers were laughing and joking with each other over the phone. Both were commending one another on how proud they were of each’s accomplishments, reminiscing on Rogers’ first days with the program. According to Smith, Rogers’ energy and enthusiasm were overwhelmingly positive from day one. 

“Us ex-convicts, we have each other—that’s all we got,” Rogers said. “We build family as we go because we have to look out for each other.”

“My sister,” Smith replied.