California’s Inmate Firefighters Explore the Challenges and Victories of being on the Front Lines of Inferno

By The Commentary and Ryan Stygar


As fires scorch across the state, Californians are once again reminded of the extreme threat posed by wildfire. News broadcasts show hundreds of firefighters working day and night to contain the blaze. While most firefighters wear yellow jackets to protect themselves from heat and embers, a substantial group wears bright orange jackets. 

Why? They are California’s front line.

California’s Inmate Firefighters

On September 28, 2019, Cal Western students heard first-hand accounts of the inmate firefighter experience! Two veterans of the inmate firefighter program, Brooke Carrasco and Brandon Smith, shared their stories as the keynote panelists. Among the many topics covered was the controversy around the program. Prisoner rights advocates have raised questions about placing inmates in harms way, especially since inmate firefighters earn only $2.00 per day, plus $1.00 per hour while fighting fire.

The discussion began when Ryan Stygar, moderator, asked: 

How you you feel about the controversy?

Panelists Smith and Carrasco agreed that while there is room for improvement, the Fire Camps serve an essential role for both inmates and the State of California.

“As a panelist my hope was to just get the info out there about the camp program. The work that is done by those at the camps is invaluable to the State of California.” -Carrasco

Brandon Smith pointed out that California relies on the Camps to satisfy its high demand for skilled firefighters.

“There is a severe labor shortage of firefighters in California. And fire season will continue to get worse. Employing these people solves an environmental and criminal justice challenge.” -Smith

The criminal justice challenge, of course, is the dual threat of record-level incarceration rates and California’s abysmal recidivism record. Stygar then asked the panelists: “What impact Fire Camp had on these issues”

Carrasco answered first, stating that “the program builds self-esteem. It gives individuals the power to make a positive change and see a glimpse of a life beyond their past and hardships.”She went on to say that the Fire Camp program benefits inmates by teaching them life-changing skills.

Brooke Carrasco is an especially important voice for formerly incarcerated persons. Her humble, friendly demeanor belies a life filled with adversity. After serving her sentence, Carrasco’s reputation as a skilled firefighter earned her a job with Cal Fire—making her one of the few former inmates to be accepted into the department. Carrasco went on to serve with high distinction. Her career was cut short however, by the Witch Fire in 2007.

Carrasco and her crew were trapped by an advancing fire near the Witch Creek area in San Diego County. Though seriously injured, she and her crew survived the ordeal. Their incredible efforts that day resulted in the successful rescue of a civilian who was fleeing from the fire. Though medically retired, Carrasco continues to serve the community as an advocate for survivors of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Brandon Smith also reflected on his time as both an incarcerated firefighter and as a “free” firefighter. He hopes that by sharing his story, students will come to see the incredible importance of the inmate firefighter program.

“I hope that the students realize that the people in California Fire Camps do good work for the community, and that they deserve a chance to keep serving in the field professionally.” -Smith

Perhaps no person is more informed on the relationship between inmate firefighters and criminal justice than Brandon Smith. After serving his sentence, Smith was hired as a career firefighter for the Forest Service. Smith is all-to-aware of the obstacles faced by ex-inmates seeking employment. That is why he founded the Forestry Fire Recruitment Program—a nonprofit dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated persons find jobs in the fire service. Smith explained that “allowing these people to transition professionally isn’t a big stretch; they already do the same work while incarcerated; every single day.” To date, Smith and his team have helped over 60 released prisoners earn fire-related jobs in California.

Smith has big goals for the program and is thrilled with the way Cal Western students have responded to the issue.

“In sharing my personal story, and that of others I wanted to show that we deserve the opportunity to transition into the field professionally . . .  I really enjoyed myself at the event. We were well received by the students.” -Smith

This event would not have been possible without the efforts of XONR8 and Ryan Stygar, a third-year student and former Cal Fire firefighter. We hope to continue hosting these panel discussions between Cal Western and the Forestry Fire Recruitment Program! Keep your eyes open for our next event!

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