Pris­on­ers proud to fight fires for peanuts

New Straits Times - - World -

YUCAIPA (CAL­I­FOR­NIA): Fresh out of prison, Ale­jan­dro Ran­gel longs to keep do­ing the job he did as an in­mate for one dol­lar (RM4.20) an hour: fight for­est fires. For more than two years, he worked with one of some 200 crews of in­mate-fire­fight­ers, who spend more time bat­tling blazes in the forests of Cal­i­for­nia than sit­ting be­hind bars.

This week, for in­stance, 553 in­mates were sent to take on the blazes rav­aging the wine coun­try north of San Fran­cisco.

In prison, these peo­ple are pris­on­ers. But out­side, they are like any other fire­fighter — no hand­cuffs, no chains and no guards to watch over them. Per­haps the only thing that makes them stand out is an or­ange jump­suit with the word “in­mate” stamped on one of the pant legs.

Oh, yes, and then there are the pal­try wages they earn.

For risk­ing their lives fight­ing rag­ing in­fer­nos, they earn a dol­lar an hour, com­pared with the min­i­mum of US$17.70 per hour that a pro­fes­sional makes.

Their main job is to keep fires from spread­ing. They cut down trees and dig ditches around fires to con­tain them.

Ran­gel, 25, dreams of be­ing a chain­saw op­er­a­tor.

“But I’d do any duty, what­ever it is. I would join any­where in Cal­i­for­nia,” Ran­gel said dur­ing a train­ing ex­er­cise at Oak Glen Camp, a min­i­mum se­cu­rity prison here, about 140km east of Los An­ge­les.

Team work, dis­ci­pline and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion were mantras that in­mates re­peated over and over as a prison guard looked on.

Gayle McLaugh­lin, a politi­cian who wants to run for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor of the state, has con­demned the pro­gramme as cruel ex­ploita­tion.

But the in­mates in­sist they do not feel taken ad­van­tage of by work­ing so hard for so lit­tle pay, which is ac­tu­ally the high­est wage a Cal­i­for­nia pris­oner can earn.

The state saves an es­ti­mated US$124 mil­lion a year with this pro­gramme, which has ex­isted since 1946. Two pris­on­ers died this year while fight­ing fires.

Ale­jan­dro earned US$1,200 this year. The pro­gramme is strictly vol­un­tary and open to low-risk in­mates, most of them young men in prison for drug of­fences or rob­bery.

Ran­gel was sen­tenced to eight years in prison af­ter be­ing con­victed of rob­bing a home in his home­town of San Fer­nando.

The ve­hi­cle the in­mates travel in has no lad­der or fire hose. It is a red bus with bars on the win­dows. The driver is a fire­man, and he is sep­a­rated from the crew.

Dur­ing the fire sea­son, they prac­ti­cally live in the bus. They travel all over the state help­ing the pros fight fires. Last year, Ran­gel’s team logged 16,000km.

Der­rick Lovell, 25, has six months left at Oak Glen and, like Ran­gel, he wants to fight for­est fires pro­fes­sion­ally.

“My mum is proud. She said ‘I al­ways knew you’d be­come a fire­man, even if it is the hard way’,” Lovell said.

“This is the first time in a long time my fam­ily is proud of me,” said a smil­ing Travis Reeder, 23.

He was im­pris­oned af­ter be­ing con­victed of drug deal­ing.

On his sec­ond day as a fire­fighter, he fainted from de­hy­dra­tion. But he, too, wants to go pro.

The death toll rose to 31 on Thurs­day as body re­cov­ery teams used ca­daver dogs to lo­cate victims, mak­ing it the dead­li­est se­ries of blazes in the state’s his­tory. Gusty winds were ham­per­ing the ef­forts of the 8,000 fire­fight­ers bat­tling 20 blazes, and weather con­di­tions were not fore­cast to im­prove. AFP

AFP PIC

Fire­fight­ers from Oak Glen Con­ser­va­tion Camp, a min­i­mum se­cu­rity prison in Cal­i­for­nia, clear­ing veg­e­ta­tion to pre­vent a wild­fire from spread­ing.

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