The year 2020 was California’s worst fire season on record with 9,639 wildfires and 4.2 million acres burned. Simultaneously, over 3,600 incarcerated firefighters returned home. A critical factor in reentry success for those returning home from prison is securing stable employment. 

Last year, Michelson 20MM awarded a Spark Grant to the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) to further their work in building a self-sustainable, fee-for-service model that provides transitional employment and reentry support, while helping participants navigate the firefighting career maze. With formerly incarcerated firefighters eager to serve, this opportunity is win-win—the state gets support to address its severe firefighter labor shortages, and formerly incarcerated firefighters get access to gainful employment. 

Second Cohort of Graduates

On Saturday, May 15, 2021, FFRP hosted its second graduation honoring 35 graduates for successfully completing the Wildland Fire Academy, a rigorous 10-month professional development program. FFRP Executive Director, Brandon Smith kicked off the event by sharing more about the Academy’s education and training programming, which includes additional services such as providing inreach/prerelease services to 34 fire camps in California, supporting with the firefighting application process, obtaining certifications, preparing for interviews, and facilitating networking—all necessary support services for the success of each graduate. 

Smith also shared more about the special significance of the naming of FFRP’s fire department, the Buffalos. Named after the Buffalo Soldiers, a group of African American soldiers who helped change attitudes about race as a result of their heroic peacetime service fighting a 1910 wildfire in Idaho and Montana remembered as one of the worst disasters in the region’s history. Though Buffalo Soldiers weren’t exactly welcomed in Avery, Idaho, they ultimately played a vital role in evacuating and then saving the town. This commemoration has both historical significance and points to the need for continued work towards removing stigma and archaic barriers justice-involved candidates face in pursuing firefighting careers. 

A Celebration for the Entire Family 

The Wildland Fire Academy Commencement Ceremony was incredibly thoughtful in its graduation approach, creating virtual stages in the homes of graduates that included family.  A family member pinning the firefighting badge on graduates while they proudly displayed their certificates of completion helped further commemorate this important milestone in each graduate’s reentry journey. 

“It doesn’t matter where you come from or your walk in life… you can achieve…I had doubts, but Chief [Royal] Ramey said to trust the process. Without this program, I don’t know where I would be, but certainly not doing this well,” shared Dylani Montoya, a 2021 cohort graduate. 

Leaders across the state also joined the event to commend these graduates and share inspirational messages, including Senator Steve Glazer, Councilmember John Kennedy, and Prince Ogidikpe, a District Representative from Assemblymember Eloise Reyes’ Office. To round out the program, John Legend (singer, songwriter, producer, activist, and founder of FREEAMERICA) shared a congratulatory message for graduates, commending them on their incredible accomplishment. 

“FFRP is making a critical impact in advancing reentry and equity work in the state of California. We proudly celebrate these 35 graduates and thank them for their service as they enter the firefighting profession,” shared Phillip Kim, CEO of Michelson 20MM. 

 A total of 26 graduates from the cohort have been hired at CAL FIRE, Pioneer Fire Department, US Forest Service, EMT School, Ventura Training Center, and Union Career. 

Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon and inventor Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson. The Michelson 20MM Foundation is dedicated to supporting and investing in leading organizations, technologies, and initiatives that seek to transform learning and improve access to educational opportunities that lead to a meaningful career. Learn more at