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California is just entering wildfire season and fires are already outpacing the historic 2020 season. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the 2021 California wildfire season has already seen a total of 4,152 fires, burning 73,511 acres and 91 structures. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to highlight a firefighting labor shortage. Simultaneously, thousands of individuals with low-level offenses serving alternative sentences in the state’s 35 Fire Camps were released.  

While in Fire Camp, more than 2,000 justice-involved firefighters are trained and assigned to the state’s wildfires each year, leveraged as an essential labor force to fight fires, paid between $2 to $5 per day. In contrast, firefighters at many agencies receive six-figure salaries and excellent benefits. Unfortunately, upon release from Fire Camp, justice-involved firefighters are prevented from obtaining firefighting careers at local stations due to a California law necessitating local fire departments require an emergency medical technician (EMT) certifications and denying this license to people with records. 

Temporary Relief

A bill that passed last year in California, AB 2147 attempts to address the inequity of exploiting inmate firefighters and preventing them from using this highly sought after skill upon release.  AB 2147 allows fire camp firefighters to expunge the record that landed them in fire camp (low- level offenses) and allows people to get off of probation or parole.

Successful implementation of the bill hinges on the judge’s discretion, but as of early June 2021, the California Judicial Council has yet to provide judges with proper forms for AB 2147 expungements.

Hope for Fire Camp Firefighters

Despite these challenges, some formerly incarcerated firefighters have been successful in pursuing firefighting careers. One such firefighter is Brandon Smith, the founder and executive director of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP). He created FFRP to support more former fire campers navigating the complicated hiring process and networks needed to become firefighters with California’s primary wildland fire agencies such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), the US Forest Service, and private fire departments. In partnership with fire agencies, FFRP is building and expanding pathways to transition into this sector professionally.

“FFRP is out here working at a very unique intersection of criminal justice, environmental challenges, and equity,” says Brandon.   

FFRP is taking a proactive approach to provide forest-thinning and firefighting services through the Buffalo Fire Crew, the organization’s for-hire hand crew initiated through a Michelson 20MM Spark Grant. FFRP is also addressing larger equity issues in firefighting by supporting a workforce of people of color and women, historically excluded communities from the lucrative career path. 

To learn more about FFRP, watch the video about their most recent cohort and their earned income Buffalo Fire Department.

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 www.20mm.org.