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Last year, approximately 2,568,948 acres or 4,014 square miles burned in California across a total of 8,835 incidents; combined, they resulted in three fatalities and 3,629 destroyed structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Conservation Camps (Fire Camps) played a vital role in containing the nearly 10,000 fires, as they have since 1915. As of 2021, 35 fire camps are in operation across 25 counties in California, which are made possible by CDCR, Cal Fire, and the Los Angeles County Fire.

While 1,600 incarcerated individuals selflessly volunteer to join the Fire Camps and fight on the front lines year after year, upon release it is incredibly challenging for formerly incarcerated individuals to obtain permanent careers in the fire service. Recognizing the fact that thousands of skilled workers are being passed up, The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), which began in 2015 and is the recipient of a 2020 and 2021 Michelson Spark Grant, stepped in to recruit and prepare currently incarcerated firefighters for long-term employment in the fire services. 

Through a recent Spark Grant, FFRP will expand its services into the Bay Area, welcoming the first Bay Area cohort in November 2022. Operating concurrently with a fourth Los Angeles cohort, FFRP will directly respond to an overwhelming need in the Bay Area as it is estimated that 15,000 individuals have returned to the Bay Area in the last 10 years or approximately 1,600 annually. As they prepare for the expansion, FFRP has identified four potential projects, which will train and ultimately prepare the cohort for jobs with organizations such as Cal Fire, the United States Forest Service, and private fire prevention services. Once secured, salaries for former Fire Camp participants will range from $40,000 – $70,000+. In the long-term, FFRP intends to operate two cohorts a year, each with at least 40 participants in the Bay Area alone.

Although those who participate in Fire Camps gain meaningful, hands-on experience, oftentimes their experience does not provide a direct pathway into a full-time firefighting career. In a historic moment, California recognized the vital role the fire camps play by passing legislation in 2020 that breaks down those barriers. Effective January 2021, formerly incarcerated individuals who served in a CDCR Fire Camp are eligible to have their records expunged. As Governor Newsom stated, “This legislation rights a historic wrong and recognizes the sacrifice of thousands of incarcerated people who have helped battle wildfires in our state.” Coupled with FFRP’s training and ancillary services, the legislation makes high-paying careers more accessible for thousands of individuals returning home.

We look forward to continuing our support of FFRP as they expand into the Bay Area providing a pathway for justice-impacted firefighters to obtain full-time employment upon release, while also supporting their communities.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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