Inmate Firefighters Train for Wildfire Season

Inmate Firefighters Train for Wildfire Season

Kitty Alvarado

Every spring, dozens of firefighters must get certified to go into battle.

“To test their readiness for the upcoming fire season,” says Cal Fire Division Chief Steven Beach.  

Their orange jumpsuits tell you, they’re not your average firefighters. They’re the select few who make the cut to train to become state inmate firefighters.

Inmate firefighter Anthony Garcia sees redemption in this work, “It’s been a good experience. It’s a way for us that have gotten into a little trouble before to give back to the community for those that want to make a change.”

Beach says the work they do is critical, “We have just short of 200 fire crews in the State of California working or us so they are a very huge part of our workforce we rely heavily on them for the very backbreaking manual labor.”

The Bautista Conservation Camp is high above Hemet. One of the most important jobs they must learn to do well is cutting a fire line in treacherous terrain.

“And that keeps the fire from spreading, their life depends on the quality of line that they’re cutting and how well they work together,” says Beach.

That’s how they learn what is known in the fire service as brotherhood.

“We have a saying that we’re only as strong as our weakest link so we always wait for each other and we make sure that everybody’s safe,” says Garcia.

They know this work can cost them their lives. Part of the training includes the worst case scenario: deploying their fire shelter.

“We don’t ever want to use those but that is the last line of defense if we are being overrun by fire,” says Beach. 

Garcia says he worked the fires in Northern California last year, where dozens were killed, thousands lost their homes and two firefighters lost their lives, “I’ve never been in a situation where a lot of people have been the way that they were at that fire so it definitely makes you think about your mortality.”

But Garcia says seeing how his work impacts others makes it all worth it, “People were coming by and just thanking us and actually shaking our hands and that was the first time I felt actually felt like I gave something back.”

Inmates earn a minimal salary but work millions of hours a year and save the state about $100 million.