by Ray Levy Uyeda
Fall is a tough season for Da’Ton Harris, a wildland firefighter who spends multiple weeks at a time attempting to tamp down fires without hoses. Harris and his crew of 20 other firefighters with the Urban Association of Forestry and Fire Professionals, where he’s a superintendent, are responsible for cutting down a forest to its soil so that, theoretically, there’s less fuel to burn. It’s a critical job, especially as climate change continues to dry up California’s forests and prolong the summer heat, which now overlaps with increased winds during typical fall months—creating a ripe environment for wildfire.
Many firefighters have been at the front lines of these dangerous jobs while being incarcerated, but policies block them from being hired by municipal fire stations after their release because they have conviction and felony records, despite the growing need for more firefighters to combat intensifying wildfires.
California legislators are starting to acknowledge this reality. In 2021, a state law went into effect that may make it easier for firefighters who were trained while they were incarcerated to expunge a felony conviction from their record, which is needed to gain the required licensing to become a municipal firefighter. Harris, a staff member at Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), which helps formerly incarcerated people find jobs, went through the expungement process this year.
“With me being able to get this off my record, I can try to head back to school to work for a paramedic license, so I can work closer to home,” Harris said. He lives in Victorville, California, with his wife and five children, and he said that he’ll be able to go to his son’s baseball games and maybe even help coach the team. The expungement, he said, will change everything.
Advocates say the change in the law is a prime example of the progress that needs to happen around felony records and removing employment restrictions for those who’ve been arrested or incarcerated. However, others warn that reforms to a system that is restrictive by design won’t bring about the justice needed to address climate change-induced wildfires or change the way a conviction record can shadow someone long after they’ve served their sentence.
While incarcerated wildland firefighters are tasked with combating the consequences of climate change, justice-involved community leaders and grassroots activists say that the intertwined issues of climate change and retributive policies of incarceration deserve a deeper look that questions the efficacy of piecemeal solutions to systemic issues. They also echo a call for a just transition, a union term for shifting the workforce away from harmful industries to those that don’t risk climate and ecological balance.
“It’s a really good starting point”
The new law opens up a career pathway previously closed to formerly incarcerated people trained in firefighting. Because of the lengthy approval process for expungement, advocates say this fall will be the first wildfire season where firefighters with expunged records will serve.
The law is designed to address a systemic problem that many formerly incarcerated firefighters face: municipal fire stations require an emergency medical technician (EMT) license for employment, yet EMT licensing boards discriminate against those with felony convictions. The law, often referred to by its legislative number AB 2147, only applies to those who were trained at “conservation camps” operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). There are 36 such wildland firefighting training camps across the state.
“It’s a really good starting point,” said Genna Rimer, the director of supportive services at FFRP. “Five years ago, this wasn’t even an option … Things are changing within the criminal legal system.”
Rimer helped launch the organization’s AB 2147 project. In partnership with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Rimer and the team of social work students she oversees prepare the application materials required by the court for expungement. So far, Rimer and her team have helped 34 people file petitions for expungement.
For some individuals, the expungement process has taken nearly a year, says Ashleigh Dennis, a litigation staff attorney at Root & Rebound, a reentry advocacy organization. She explains that the organization has had to inform judges and court clerks that the law was changed in 2021, that individuals are, in fact, eligible for felony expungement, and that the court itself has to request specific documentation from the CDCR.
In August, the first expungement petition was granted to one of Dennis’ clients. “We’ve seen that [the law] does do what it’s supposed to do, which is very exciting,” Dennis said. She was nervous about the outcome, Dennis said, given how much education her organization had to provide to the court clerks, but she was happy her fears were proven wrong.
Providing avenues for full-time employment with benefits isn’t just an acknowledgment of the work that formerly incarcerated people have already proven themselves capable of; it could also provide financial stability.
Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, said that prior to an incarceration, Hispanic and Black women report average earnings of $11,820 and $12,735, respectively. For Hispanic and Black men, those wages are $19,740 and $17,625. White men and women have the highest incomes among their formerly incarcerated and non-justice-involved peers. For comparison, a firefighter in Los Angeles can earn $75,000 annually.
“It’s definitely not where we need to be”
It’s common for states and industries to have licensing requirements for jobs—like the EMT license in California that bars many formerly incarcerated people from being hired, regardless of their experience and expertise. At least 27,000 requirements across the country prevent formerly incarcerated people from receiving licenses or accreditation. Of those 27,000 prohibitions, over two-thirds are permanent exclusions, and over one-third are automatic and mandatory—meaning that formerly incarcerated people can’t petition for an exemption.
While formerly incarcerated firefighters have already proven themselves as capable and committed to the work, petitioners are required to demonstrate again a “personal moral evolution,” a legal demand that dates back centuries; in the U.S., morality has long been attached to labor, employment, and perceived proximity to the cycle of incarceration and recidivism.
Rimer says that there are other caveats in the law that hamper someone’s ability to craft a life for themselves on the outside. For instance, expungement opportunities don’t apply to people who played other roles at conservation camps, like cooks or maintenance staff. Not to mention that approval of an expungement petition is discretionary, which means that someone’s employment opportunities and economic freedom are left to the opinion of a single person. Rimer estimates that five people whom FFRP helped file petitions for were denied expungement, with at least one of those being denied for not providing enough evidence of rehabilitation.
These pitfalls in the law are opportunities to figure out what needs to be done next, but Rimer says they’re also a reminder of how far the law has come. “It’s definitely not where we need to be,” she said.
Woods Ervin, an organizer with Critical Resistance, a grassroots movement to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, says that these gaps in the new law illustrate the layers of economic disenfranchisement that formerly incarcerated people face. The lack of access to political and economic systems equates to what he calls a“social death,” where restriction and surveillance continue long after someone has been released.
“I think that the issue of the cycle of imprisonment and economic instability is that a prison is oftentimes a catch-all for people who were in precarious economic conditions before they were incarcerated,” Ervin said.
The positioning of incarcerated firefighters as essential to the wildland firefighting workforce is a political choice, and it doesn’t have to remain that way, Ervin said. Critical Resistance and Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) are utilizing a just transition framework, he said, and urging the state to make use of cost savings from prison closures by expanding public sector jobs.
Even with the state’s reliance on incarcerated firefighters, Ervin says that California prisons often lack wildfire evacuation plans for their incarcerated residents. An analysis by The Intercept found that California ranks highest of all states for the sheer number of facilities at the highest risk levels for wildfire.
But for advocates of decarceration, the reliance on incarcerated firefighters is a misguided attempt to address the symptom of the problem of climate change with the underlying cause of another—mass incarceration. A coalition of 80 grassroots organizations in the state, under the umbrella organization CURB, is demanding that the state close 10 prisons by 2026. Closing just five prisons would save the state $1.5 billion per year by 2025, Ervin said, which are funds that could be rerouted to disinvested communities for education, health care, child care, and other public programs. The state is currently working to close the minimum security prison in Susanville.
How climate change is a criminal justice and economic justice issue
For formerly incarcerated firefighters who don’t want to go through the lengthy and potentially unfulfilling process of petitioning for expungement, there’s always the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Justin Schmollinger, a deputy chief with the state agency, says that CAL FIRE has always hired people with prior convictions, including promoting formerly incarcerated firefighters to leadership positions within the agency.
CAL FIRE partners with CDCR to run the 36 conservation camps in the state, with about 40-60 people per camp, Schmollinger said. Most often, incarcerated wildland firefighters are trained to work in “hand crews,” which use tools to clear away brush and debris. While on a fire, crews of incarcerated firefighters do the same work as non-incarcerated firefighters; the difference is their pay and the opportunities available to them down the line.
“I’m with those guys more than I am with my own family, so you get to talk, and the thing that was hardest for these individuals is just getting a regular job—just getting a job in McDonald’s,” Schmollinger said.
What worries Schmollinger these days are the numbers. Recently, CAL FIRE has had to close eight conservation camps, and even then, he says that the remaining camps are supposed to have around 100 incarcerated firefighters. Across the state, Schmollinger said that the ideal incarcerated workforce is 2,584 firefighters. Right now, Schmollinger said, there are 813.
He attributes this to a shift in incarceration policies in the state as a whole, as well as the releases initiated after the onset of COVID-19. In 2020, the state’s incarcerated population declined by 23%—though researchers note that at the onset of the pandemic, prisons were overcrowded by 33%.
The increasing intensity of climate change is a refraction point for other, often coexisting issues in the state: a declining wildland firefighting population, a push to recognize the colonial origins of fighting rather than working with fire, a grassroots call entering the mainstream to dismantle an expensive and racist carceral system, and a recognition that those who were trained as firefighters while incarcerated should be able to continue and build on their career.
This is all the evidence needed for a just transition, Ervin said. A wildfire management plan can’t be built in part on access to low-wage laborers. The idea of a workforce devoted to public projects and climate change readiness is not a new one, though it was repopularized by the Green New Deal, legislation introduced in 2019 by Democratic then-freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
The growing need for climate mitigation strategies nationwide, coupled with a reckoning around the system of mass incarceration, is fodder for shifting the underlying conditions that lead to catastrophic weather and incarceration. And as we inch closer to climate points-of-no-return, also called “tipping points,” experts say that climate change must be tackled with more urgency.
In a way, Harris’ experience speaks to what is possible when we offer opportunities to learn trade skills rather than continue to punish someone by withholding access to economic systems. “Firefighting really gave me a platform so I can really do something different,” Harris said. Without firefighting, he said, “I honestly don’t know where I’d be at.”
“We need to keep wildfires in ecosystems and out of communities”
What concerns Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, is that the state is funding the wrong firefighting tactics. California’s ecosystems evolved with wildfire, Wolf said. About one-third of the state is forested, land that needs to burn to remain healthy. Fire is naturally restorative and a necessary part of the forest ecosystem, not an external harmful force onto ecosystems, as dominant cultural narratives today would suggest.
CAL FIRE’s own resources point to the many benefits of fire, like killing bugs and pests, clearing debris from the forest floor, and rejuvenating soil systems. California Native tribes have long practiced cultural burning for land stewardship, food production, and ceremonial reasons. For the nearly two centuries that California has been a state, official policy has advocated for the suppression of fire. For that time, official policy supported the destruction of Native peoples, tribes, and traditional foodways. It’s in large part because of Native practices that the state began to change its tune on fire, recognition of fire that also comes over 100 years after the state outlawed cultural burning.
“We’re still in this period of fire suppression where most fires that start are extinguished,” Wolf said. The number of wildfires are increasing, as is the length of fire season in the state and the intensity of the burning, which Wolf attributes to climate change.
Since the 1970s, she said, California has experienced about a fivefold increase in the amount of area burned every year. In the late 1990s, about $650 million of CAL FIRE’s budget, adjusted for inflation, was dedicated to fire response. Now, that number hovers around $2.3 billion. Fire prevention remains less than 10% of the CAL FIRE budget.
Hotter summers parch the landscape, and fire season has extended into months with stronger winds, which breathe oxygen into wildfires and help them spread. “Fire has become more destructive in California because traditional firefighting tactics don’t work during that extreme fire weather,” Wolf said.
What many Californians would be surprised to learn is that CAL FIRE wildland firefighting may, in fact, contribute to negative changes in forest ecosystems, which are critical stewards of 60% of the state’s water supply.
But as a firefighting tactic, “[t]he state pours most of its money into cutting forests,” Wolf said. “They call it thinning [and] fuel reduction.”
It sounds benign, Wolf said, but the long-term impact worsens the climate crisis and contributes to wildfire damage. Analysis of a 2013 fire in Oregon found that heavily logged forests burned more intensely than those that hadn’t been thinned, and researchers say that the 2018 Camp Fire in California was able to move quickly because of forest thinning. “Increased fire speeds reduced the evacuation time window for residents of Paradise, where at least 130 people died,” researchers wrote.
Instead, “[w]e need to keep wildfires in ecosystems and out of communities,” Wolf said. The state can address root causes of the climate crisis and impacts of fire on communities, but current wildland firefighting techniques do neither of these things. She advocates for more funding for home hardening—constructing houses with materials that are resistant to fire, as well as putting screens on vents, installing roof sprinkler systems, and clearing debris away from the surrounding area of one’s home.
The state also has the power to get to the underlying cause of so many wildfires, Wolf said, like extraction of oil and fracking, which often are situated near communities of color.
“The Newsom administration has the power now to stop new oil drilling, phase out existing drilling, and oversee a rapid just transition to 100% renewable.”
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