Prisoners proud to fight fires for peanuts
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
Firefighters from Oak Glen Conservation Camp, a minimum security prison in California, clearing vegetation to prevent a wildfire from spreading.