Already facing declining civil servants, California is preparing to close one of its largest inmate training centers for firefighters as part of Gov Gavin Newsom's plan to reduce prison numbers.
The California Correctional Center in Lassen County, located near two national forests in the northeastern part of the country, is expected to close in June 2022 and its fire training program moved about five hours south to the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.
Closing the 58-year-old prison is a major increase in Newsom's pressure to end more arrests, but current members of the public and firefighters are concerned that reducing the number of prison firefighters could undermine the state's ability to combat cold wildfires.
"We desperately need these programs," said Brandon Dunham, a former firefighter at the United States Forest and Bureau of Land Management who founded and hosted a wildfire firefighting podcast called "The Anchor Point Podcast." “We already have a small staff and have poor numbers. They need us and we need them. ”
Prison firefighters usually work for a staff of about 14 people under the supervision of a fire captain and often focus on tightening the contents. Armed with shovels and pinks, they fight fires such as loggers: digging holes, chopping wood, clearing the brush and providing vital support to government and provincial firefighters.
For decades the California Correctional Center has been an important center for firefighting programs in Northern California, providing thousands of high-paying jobs in rural and remote areas of the state and providing fire training at higher altitudes.
“Prison staff are one of Northern California's largest assets. Indeed, ”said Lassen County Supervisor Gary Bridges.
Last year, bridges watched during the dispatch of prison staff to help reunite the North Complex Fire, which was set on fire in August by a series of lightning strikes and set on small fires within a few weeks. One of the smaller fires, the Sheep Fire, has burned some 20,000 acres [30,000 ha] near the town of Susanville, which maintains a correctional facility.
"We would have lost the whole mountain," if the prison staff had not stopped, Bridges said.
Originally built in 1963, the California Correctional Center trains inmates firefighters working in 14 fire stations in Northern California. The number of eligible prisoners has decreased in recent years as a result of changes in the country's law and the coronavirus epidemic, which has prompted state officials to call for the immediate release of more non-violent offenders.
State and municipal departments are strengthening their staff in anticipation of a major fire hazard, and California lawmakers are pushing for funding fire and prevention efforts. Recently, Newssom proposed to invest $ 2 billion in response to a state fire, with Senen Dianne Feinstein filing a number of bills in Congress to boost readiness.
Activists have long complained that California relies heavily on prison firefighters, who earn $ 1 an hour while fighting fires compared to a trained firefighter, who can earn $ 40,000 or more in their first year.
Newssom, in an effort to resolve some of the issues surrounding prison firefighters, signed a bill in September to speed up the process of releasing records of volunteer firefighters. The new law was designed to make it easier for them to obtain an emergency medical professional certificate, which is the first step in becoming a firefighter in many cities and regions.
"At the end of the day, they did an amazing job," Dunham said, adding that the training programs were full of controversy.
“Can it be regarded as another form of legitimate slavery or slave labor? Yes it is possible, ”he said. "However, these programs are critical to the success of the national firefighting program."
Over the years, Dunham has worked for at least 22 years or at least some prison firefighters, some of whom have become superintendents and executives in state and federal agencies. He described the approach as "turnkey" in which inmates learn life skills and strong behaviors that can quickly translate into careers when they are released from prison.
Armando Perez, a former gang member who is now part of a high-profile terrorist group in Eldorado National Forest, said his training as a prisoner had ultimately led to a new career.
“I felt awkward and remorseful,” she says. "If the prison system didn't exist, I don't know where I would end up."
Originally from San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, Perez entered the inside and outside of juvenile detention centers before entering an adult prison for armed robbery when he was 19 years old. He was initially attracted to the fire system because it allowed him to spend more time in the fresh air than to be confined behind four walls and because prisoners' fire extinguishers were given more time to visit with their families.
After undergoing a comprehensive screening program, Perez was accepted into the Jamestown inmate training program and eventually joined the Forest Service after his release from prison. He is now advising other former inmates who want to become firefighters and is concerned that reducing these programs could eventually increase repatriation.
"It's an opportunity for self-improvement," he said. "I truly feel that if the plans go well, you will have a lot of people going back to their bad ways."
A former firefighter and former captain of Cal Fire in North California said joining a training program in Jamestown gave him a gun