Firefighting inmates in California fill a void, gain a lot
LAFAYETTE — While some may see them as felons in jumpsuits, California residents of cities affected by threatening wildfires know inmate firefighters as the “angels in orange.”
“I think the best part is when you get off a shift and you’re cruising through the town and there are little old ladies or little old men going ‘Thank you, firefighters,'” said inmate firefighter Culvin May, 39, from the Delta Conservation Camp in Suisun City.
There are 196 inmate fire crews that perform more than 3 million hours of emergency response work annually, making the program an essential tool in the state’s firefighting system, according to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. Inmate firefighters make up about one-third of the Cal Fire crews responding to wildfires throughout the state.
This year has been particularly taxing on firefighters with the uptick in the number of fires as a result of the drought.
“The program itself is a critical component of our firefighting system in California,” Berlant said. “It provides a huge workforce in helping us contain wildfires.”
May is among 3,800 low-level offenders, including 225 women, who volunteer and train to work on the front lines of wildfires or in conservation camps year-round, said Bill Sessa, spokesman for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. There are 43 volunteer firefighter camps throughout the state, which saves $80 million to $100 million per year through the Conservation Camp Program, Sessa said.
To join a fire camp, inmates must apply to volunteer, endure the same four-week training as Cal Fire workers and have the right temperament, Sessa said.
“The firefighter inmates have to meet all the same mental and physical standards as civilian firefighters because when they’re on the fire line, the fire doesn’t discriminate,” he said.
On average, inmate firefighters earn $2 a day in camp, plus $1 an hour when fighting fires. They receive two days off their sentence for every day they volunteer.
Conservation Camp Program
CAL FIRE is currently authorized to operate 39 Conservation Camps statewide that house nearly 4,300 inmates and wards. These camps are operated in conjunction with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Through these cooperative efforts CAL FIRE is authorized to operate 196 fire crews year-round. These crews are available to respond to all types of emergencies including wildfires, floods, search and rescue, and earthquakes. When not responding to emergencies, the crews are busy with conservation and community service work projects for state, federal, and local government agencies. Fire crews perform several million hours of emergency response each year, and more on work projects.
- Camp Program Fact Sheet (186K PDF)
- Emergency Crew Transport (ECT)
- Crew Carrying Vehicle (CCV)
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR)
2015 CALIFORNIA FIREFIGHTERS MEMORIAL CEREMONY
On Saturday, October 17, 2015, hundreds will join together to memorialize the sacrifice and dedication of California’s fallen heroes at the 13th Annual California Firefighters Memorial Ceremony. The ceremony will be held at the California Firefighters Memorial located in Capitol Park, Sacramento, CA.
Thank you to our firefighters and volunteer firefighters!