Invisible workers: Prison fire crews save lives while incarcerated then left to fend for themselves once released

There are currently more than 14,000 firefighters struggling to battle roughly 7,000 blazes in California, many working 24-hour shifts. Among those pushed to the limit, as this year’s fire season in California burns an area now the size of the state of Delaware, are approximately 3,100 inmates trained as wildland firefighters.

Video Transcript


MICHAEL THOMAS: Sometimes we don't even get to sleep or, like, take a break or anything. You-- you got to, you know, protect that land, you know, got to protect that house or put that fire out.


My name's Michael Thomas. I'm 27, and I was in the fire camp for about 11 months [INAUDIBLE] San Luis Obispo over by Santa Barbara area. It was a-- a crazy experience for me because, one, you go to the fire camp, and it's like a-- a percentage of your time. So let's just say, if I'm doing five years, I can get my time knocked in half just by being on the-- on the fire squad, you know, helping putting these fires out to get a-- an early release date.

So that's why people are really risking their lives to do that was just to get out early. Or, you know, some people want to be productive. They don't want to be sitting in a cell or-- or, you know, just being around those crazy kind of people out there. So me being as productive as I like to be, and, you know, I'm just a hardworking person naturally. And I wanted to go home. I didn't want to be sitting in no prison cell, so I took the initiative to get on that fire crew to-- so I could get that early release date.

It was a fun experience, though, you know, just being the front line of the fire. You know, as a little kid, you know, oh, a firefighter. You know, people look up to that type of thing. So it was a great experience. I learned a lot. And I had the high hopes of coming home and, you know, thinking I've got some type of career chance with being a firefighter. But it didn't go as-- as planned.


FRANCIS LOPEZ: My name is Francis Lopez from Richmond, California, and I was in the Konacti fire camp from 2015 to 2017.

DAYANA CONTRERAS: And my name is Dayana Contreras. I am his partner, mother of his child, and we were together-- I was actually pregnant during his sentence. So we were together during that time that he was in fire camp.

FRANCIS LOPEZ: I was a 85-percenter or, so there were no benefits for me going to fire camp. I didn't get any time reduction. This is before prop 47 passed. So all of the 85-percenters that ended up at fire camp, we were just there because we wanted to do something with our time to be productive. And I think that's what it was for me at first. It kind of gave me just a sense of purpose, to be able to impact the world positively in-- in the lowest point of my life.

And, you know, going through the experience for me was more of like a self-journey because you-- you were able to see the work that you put in. And it was a crazy dynamic because on one side, you still are incarcerated, but on the other side, you're help-- you're literally saving people's homes, saving lives, saving, you know, whole communities. It was, like, self-healing.

But on the other side of it, I mean, as far as, like, the work, the work was strenuous. We didn't get paid much. And mind you, even if you do get paid, the amount that you do get paid, restitution still comes out of that. So for lack of better terms, you're working your [BLEEP] off, you're really not getting compensated for it.


MICHAEL THOMAS: When there wasn't a fire, we was probably getting a dollar a day. When there was a fire, we was getting $2 a day. It was bad, too. Like, food-- we would be out on these fires weeks at a time, months. Sometimes we wouldn't even come back to the prison for months. We were spending all our energy and time. And we'd come back exhausted, and they wouldn't give us a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Something you would give to, like, an elementary school kid when he first gets to school, giving us those little things every single day.

Like, they expected us to just be OK with that, and we're firefighters. And the food we're getting when we're out on the fires is OK, but, you know, [INAUDIBLE]. We got people [INAUDIBLE]. The slave work and the labor was not worth what I went through. The health, they don't take care of us health-wise. Like, it's poor. They just throw us out there. They just-- that's it.

FRANCIS LOPEZ: I mean, there were times I thought it was going to be over. You're battling wildfires. So it's like, think of it like this. You in the back of a truck. You can't see out of it because they don't allow the inmates to look out of the vehicles. So, you know, you're driving, you're just pothole after pothole, and you see-- you just start smelling smoke, smelling stuff burning.

And as soon as you-- you hop out the back of the [INAUDIBLE], helicopters flying, water everywhere, radio chat. It's a crazy scene. I remember one time, one fire specifically, we were, like, on a hill that was probably about-- it was, like, this steep, and we're going down. And mind you, I-- I was the sawyer on my crew. So what that means is I had the chainsaw.

So we're going down, and I'm going down a hill like this chainsawing, you know, like, brush out the way and, like, holding myself up while we sliding down. And it-- and it's just like, you know, I mean, it's crazy, man. I can't really put it in any other words. But it was times of having me tell her before, I said, man, I don't know how we made it out because, you feel me, it was-- it was bad.


DAYANA CONTRERAS: That photo specifically that he sent me, I was pregnant during his last time on fire camp. And so I dealt with high anxiety of, is he going to make it home, you know, to be here for me and-- and our child? And the only reason that I got myself to be OK with it was because I saw that-- what it was doing for him mentally and how it was helping him. And he'd go weeks without contacting me because he's out on fires. And so I could have had an ultrasound or I could had an update with my pregnancy, and I had to wait days at a time, if not weeks, to let him know.

And realistically, if we're putting value on lives, I understood that the inmates' lives were less valuable than those of the official, you know, firefighters. And just living with that every day was a little torturous. So, you know, I was just impelled to-- compelled to post a tweet and kind of give a shoutout to anyone out there that maybe has a family member or a loved one out there right now, just, you know, let them know that they're appreciated.

FRANCIS LOPEZ: You know, when you first touch down in prison, I sign a life waiver. You know, you-- you sign where-- where your belongings are going to go to and who they going to contact if you die right when you get booked into the prison. So my mentality in prison was, I could die on the yard. I could die, you know-- you could die anywhere. And-- and I think that's part of the trauma that people deal with when they're incarcerated because you know that really any day could be your last, because all it takes is one little thing to go bad, something to pop off, and it's about to go up.


MICHAEL THOMAS: Yeah, I would do it again because I know mentally I'm strong enough for it. Like, if you're not mentally strong, there is really nothing at all. I've never have been to boot camp, but I think it's pretty close to that. They actually had this program called the Ventura Program, which is a firefighter reentry program. So, you could, you know, leave parole and can go into the fire program and actually become, like, a-- a real firefighter with these guys. But there's so many, like, loopholes you have to do.

I did my application, and when I got out-- because you do the application 90 days before you go home. I did-- I made sure I was on top of everything. I got home, and these guys asked me, oh, did I turn in the application? I'm like, here's the start of their bull crap again. So I just kind of just felt unmotivated after that, and I didn't want to pursue it no more.

FRANCIS LOPEZ: If you're a felon, you can't apply to be a city firefighter at all. And-- and then for me, like, I came home to a daughter, so I just had to get back right away. And-- and with that being said, it's-- it's hard because, I mean, I told her, I said, I'll do it definitely. I had no problem with it. I really liked the work, and I was actually really, really good at what I did.

But it's just like, there are no resources, and I feel like the least they could do is at least set up people with interviews. You know, we went through this program. We did all of this for communities. I mean, they're thanking us for being heroes and all of this. But when we get out, it's just we're the felons. And that's kind of what it always is.