Author, Expert & Speaker

California is burning. The air contaminants from uncontained wildfires have caused a hazy reddish-gray umbrella sky extending from north to south. The images of brave and dedicated firefighters battling the rampage of fire in the midst of high temperatures and low humidity appear in the local and national press. Fighting wildfires in California is very serious business. Firefighters and first responders who engage in this dangerous work deserve the highest accolades and the public’s appreciation for their heroic services.

Background: CAL FIRE

Meet CAL FIRE. According to its newsletter,

the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) is an emergency response and resource protection department. CAL FIRE protects lives, property and natural resources from fire; responds to emergencies of all types, and protects and preserves timberlands, wildlands, and urban forests.

In 2005, CAL FIRE celebrated its first century of service. Its stated mission says: “The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection serves and safeguards the people and protects the property and resources of California.” Safeguarding people, places, and things is costly. The 2016–2017 California budget for CAL FIRE was $1.862 billion. There was also a separate budget of $943 million for wildland fires, and $424 million was tucked away in an emergency fund. The 2016–2017 budget supported 5,324 permanent CAL FIRE employees, 1,783 seasonal employees, another 2,750 local government volunteer firefighters, and 3,500 inmates and wards.

According to the California government website,

CAL FIRE is currently authorized to operate 39 Conservation Camps . . . [considered to be low security facilities] that house nearly 4,300 inmates and wards. These camps [three of which house female inmates] are operated in conjunction with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the Division of Juvenile Justice. Through these cooperative efforts CAL FIRE is authorized to operate 196 fire crews year-round. These crews, also referred to as hand crews, are available to respond to all types of emergencies including wildfires, floods, [and] search and rescue. Fire crews perform more than 3 million hours of emergency response work each year. . . .

[The inmates] are carefully screened by custodial agencies for their suitability for the program, including physical, emotional, and intellectual aptitudes, as well as a lack of arson in their records. Potential crew members are evaluated again during physical fitness training by the custodial agency and yet again during their basic training by CAL FIRE. Fire Crew Firefighter Basic Training consists of a week of classroom training and a week of field training and covers wildland fire safety and attack, hand tool use, teamwork, and crew expectations. Once assigned to a fire crew, a minimum of four hours-per-week of advanced training is provided to each fire crew firefighter, with some members progressing to more responsible positions on the crew. All CAL FIRE crews are tested each spring during rigorous Fire Crew Preparedness Exercises.

The California legislature recognizes the threats caused by fires and takes these threats seriously. The California Government Code[1] contains this matter-of-fact statement about the threat caused by wildfires:

Since fires ignore civil boundaries, it is necessary that cities, counties, special districts, state agencies, and federal agencies work together to bring raging fires under control. Preventive measures are therefore needed to ensure the preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.

Compensating Firefighters

Firefighters deserve to be well compensated. They are charged with controlling fires and responding to other emergencies. It makes sense that inmates trained to perform as firefighters would receive a fair compensation for working in dangerous situations. A look at the payment data available is disappointing but not unexpected.

In my recent post, The Value of Prison Labor, I discuss the disparity between pay on the streets versus pay for inmates. The pay for California inmates is between $0.08 and $0.37 per hour. This pay range is not found on the CDCR website; it is found in such studies as this one conducted by the 2017 Prison Reform Initiative.

Pay for CAL FIRE Firefighters

According to a CAL FIRE salary report dated April 16, 2018, someone in the a seasonal, temporary classification of Firefighter I earns $3,422 per month.

A CAL FIRE recruitment flyer tells us more:

A Fire Fighter I is usually hired in April, May or June, and the length of employment may be up to nine months, depending on the duration and intensity of the fire season. Being a Fire Fighter I can lead to a permanent career with CAL FIRE.

The actual pay male and female inmate firefighters receive varies according to different reports.

In an August 31, 2017, New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires,”[2] Jaime Lowe, reported that “at Malibu 13, one of three conservation camps that house women, the commander, John Scott, showed me a printout: Inmate firefighters can make a maximum of $2.56 a day in camp and $1 an hour when they’re fighting fires.”[3]

Lowe’s report shows how women are putting their lives on the line for very little money. She tells the story of Shawna Lynn Jones, a CDCR inmate who died in 2016 working on the Mulholland fire in Los Angeles County. Shawna was twenty-two years old and had less than two months to go on her three-year sentence.

For an enhanced sense of how female firefighter inmates are subject to exploitive pay abuse, watch this October 2017 report from Democracy Now! entitled “Why Are Women Prisoners Battling California Wildfires for as Little as $1 a Day?”

The job description certainly sounds like the positions filled by California inmates. However, up until now, the training and certification necessary for inmate firefighters has been insufficient to qualify for firefighting jobs upon reentry. Their training does not include EMT certification, and the experience earned from fire camp does not translate into credits toward gaining work.

California’s 2018– 2019 state budget has provided for a firefighter training and certification program with increased pay and benefits:

The Budget includes [a] $26.6 million General Fund to establish a Firefighter Training and Certification Program for ex-offenders to provide the necessary education and training to become a firefighter. The program creates a training center at the Ventura Conservation Camp for 80 ex-offenders annually with job skills to succeed post-incarceration. The California Conservation Corps will be the employer of record and provide the base wages and benefits consistent with other Corps members. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) will be responsible for the administration of the facility, fire training, and certification.

Upon completion of the program, participants will be qualified through experience and certifications to apply for entry-level firefighting jobs with local, state, and federal firefighting agencies.

California’s Policy Is Changing for the Better

California is taking the steps to better treat its inmate firefighters who work the front lines fighting wildfires such as those that scourged the state this summer. Inmate firefighting labor saves the state millions of dollars each year. As reported in an August 10, 2018, San Francisco Chronicle editorial,

California has used prison labor to fight fires since the 1940s. Salaried firefighters in California earn an annual median income of $73,860, and even entry-level first responders with CalFire earn the state’s minimum wage. The practice saves the state a tremendous amount of money. CalFire estimates that inmate firefighters save California taxpayers about $100 million a year.


California is taking steps that can positively impact inmates upon reentry with a second chance to qualify as civilian firefighters. The current compensation plan and incomplete training is senseless and repressive for the men and women who put their lives at risk fighting fires within the state. Figures of how much the state pays incarcerated firefighters for this and past years of service don’t appear to be in the public domain. For certain, the state is paying far less than the $100 million a year inmate labor saves the state. It’s only equitable for the state to apply some of the return on investment by providing the opportunity for men and women inmates to have meaningful work opportunities upon their reentry.

Recommended Reading

You’re sure to find the following articles interesting:

I always welcome comments and alternative points of view.

Image courtesy of 123rf


[1] Sec. 51175(a)

[2] Subtitled “By choice, for less than $2 an hour, the female inmate firefighters of California work their bodies to the breaking point. Sometimes they even risk their lives.”

[3] According to an August 10, 2018 San Francisco Chronicle article “Inmates earn just $2 per day, and an additional $1 to $2 per hour when they’re fighting an active fire.”

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