Meet the inmates fighting California’s wildfires

Oct 16, 2017

 

Hear from two of the approximately 4000 incarcerated men and women currently deployed fighting California’s wildfires.

Michael Draebom’s firefighting crew was in trouble before they even reached the fire.

Some trees had fallen into the road, so they stopped to clear them. They were only there for a few moments when a pine tree snapped and fell down on a fire truck, injuring two firefighters.

“Everybody was okay,” Draebom says, shaking his head. “But they barely dodged losing their lives.”

 

Those were Draebom’s inaugural moments of his very first fire. It only got worse from there.

“We just drove through devastation of just houses burned to the ground and people scattering everywhere,” Draebom says. “You know you hear as a kid what hell is like — that's to me, that's what it reminds me of.”

 

 

Inmate speaks to correctional officers in front of tents where firefighters rest.
Credit Ninna Gaensler-Debs

 

How it all works

Draebom and his crew have been fighting the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa for days. When I talk to him, he’s resting after 24-hour shift.

Inmate firefighters are trained to create a containment line, meaning they’re often out ahead of the fire, clearing brush and trying to stop the flames from spreading.

They work in crews of about 12, and everyone has their own role. Drag spoons are the medics, swampers help the captain look at maps, sawyers and polers cut down and remove shrubbery and other plants. Draebom is a pulaski, named after the axe-like tool he uses to chop down stumps and scrape the ground.

“It's hard, it beats you up,” Draebom tells me. “I'm 37, so I'm no spring chicken.”

Perks of the job

Even though the work is grueling, there are many reasons why people sign up.

Solomon Schumaker says the food in the camps is one reason; it’s a lot better than what they serve in a regular prison. You get good exercise. Plus, you’re not actually in prison.

“I wanted to get off the yard,” Schumaker says. “This was a good opportunity for me to do that.”

Another benefit that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation likes to highlight is that this is the best paying job in the prison system.

"It was worse than than I expected by far. Everybody kind of just got quiet on the bus and just was looking out the window like, wow, you know."

While at camp, not working in emergency situations, inmates get paid $2 a day. On the fire line, they get paid $1 an hour as they work alongside and under the leadership of Cal Fire fighters.

Because of a section of our tax code, prisoners’ work isn’t considered legal employment — so we don’t have to pay them minimum wage. Cal Fire firefighters who aren’t incarcerated can make up to $100 an hour. But Schumaker says there’s a camaraderie among all of them.  

“They're all used to seeing us out there, so they're really cool with us, and they don't really treat us any different than they would their regular firefighters,” he tells me. “So, that's kind of nice.”

 

Working hard

This time of year is busy for firefighters. Earlier this year, crews like Shumaker’s were working near the Oregon border, subduing flames that burned for weeks. Typically, crews are out fighting fires most of July through October.

“I think I've been back at at the camp, maybe 26, 28 days or something like that since then,” Schumaker tells me.

Schumaker’s fought a lot of fires; around a hundred, he guesses. This fire is different.

“It was worse than than I expected by far,” he says. “Everybody kind of just got quiet on the bus and just was looking out the window like, wow, you know.”

These wildfires have strained California’s resources. Some incarcerated  firefighters are working 48 or even 72-hour shifts. Schumaker tells me that sometimes you can find a moment to lie down in the backcountry.

If you get the opportunity to sleep, he says he often buries a few hot coals underneath the ground where he’s sleeping, because it gets surprisingly cold.

 

 

Line of incarcerated firefighters at the incident command center
Credit Ninna Gaensler-Debs

 

 

It’s all worth it

Both Solomon Schumaker and Michael Draebom say it’s all worth it. Draebom remembers a particularly poignant moment from the other day.

“A couple was driving by and they stopped and the guy rolled the window down and he just started thanking us, and it wasn't five seconds before he was crying,” he remembers. “I don't know what he lost, or what he was possibly getting ready to lose, but he cried.”

When he gets out of prison in a few months, Draebom’s considering becoming a firefighter full time. But for now, he’s going back his tent to get some sleep, before heading out for another full day of fighting the flames.