Photograph by Wes Schultz

The Prisoners Fighting California’s Wildfires

As climate change makes the role of inmate firefighters in California increasingly crucial, Americans are beginning to ask whether the type of low-level offenders who qualify for the program even deserve to be locked up.

Demetrius Barr pressed his face to the window of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s van as it turned left off Little Tujunga Canyon Road. Instead of the sterile grays of the electrified fences, gravel, and metal detectors he had left behind earlier that morning, he saw the mellow greens of sage and laurel, and the toasty browns of dead brush and desert dust.

As the former crack dealer stepped out onto the grounds of Holton Conservation Camp for the first time at the beginning of last November, taking in the smell of pine needles and the brisk mountain air, he could sense that this was the start of an entirely new life. As one of the first Los Angeles County inmates sent to serve as a wildland firefighter, a role previously reserved for those serving time in state prisons, he knew that Holton offered privileges he could only dream of back on his cramped triple-stacked bunk in jail, where he slept below a man who didn’t shower and seemed mentally ill.

Demetrius Barr Amanda Chicago Lewis/BuzzFeed

Barr was marched past a sandy beach volleyball court, hand-painted wooden signs, and a hill with white-painted rocks arranged to read “HOME OF THE WOLF PACK.” Here he would have a whole cot to himself. Here, in this quiet set of cinder block buildings amid the wilderness of Angeles National Forest, was a chance to be treated like a human being.

“It’s a little bit — not freedom, but you can move a little bit,” he told me a few weeks later.

In order to remain and enjoy the perks of this summer camp–style prison, and in order to get the good-time credits that would allow him to serve only 35% of his seven-year sentence, he would need to stay in shape, remain on his best behavior, and summon all of his courage to do hard labor beside thousand-degree flames. He’d made it this far, through months of training behind Pitchess Detention Center, the guards checking his ass for stolen tools every night as he came back into the dorms. When he got to a real fire, when he felt its heat, would he find that he didn’t have what it took?

About half of the people fighting wildland fires on the ground for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) are incarcerated: over 4,400 prisoners, housed at 42 inmate fire camps, including three for women. Together, says Capt. Jorge Santana, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) liaison who supervises the camps, they save the state over $1 billion a year. This year, California has had over 5,300 wildfires, which is about 700 more than had occurred by this time in 2013, and a thousand more than the five-year average. Now, as the West is coming to the end of one of the driest, hottest years in recorded history, the work of inmate firefighters has become essential to California’s financial and environmental health.

Someone called Barr’s name and directed him into a closet marked Evidence Room, where a guard handed him a black sign and took his photograph from behind a beige console housing an ancient PC. And then there he was on the screen: 6 feet 2 inches and sullen, with a big, soft face and an overgrown goatee.

“What’s your CDC number?” the guard asked him. “What’s your date of birth? Where else have you done time? When are you going home?”

As long as he didn’t mess this thing up, didn’t get “rolled up,” as inmate firefighters call getting sent back to a walled institution, he’d be released in a little over a year, on Nov. 30, 2014. And he didn’t want to go back to drug dealing when he did. “I’m getting close to 40. I don’t have another one in me,” he explained to me. It was his second conviction, and a third conviction for sales in California would put him away for life. “Evidently, it’s not working, so I have to try something else.”

At the fire camp, the questions continued: “While incarcerated have you ever been involved in a sexually related assault? Do you have any gang affiliation? Any other moniker besides your name? Any mental health concerns?”

Barr gave the answers they wanted, and the man gave him his new identity on a small plastic card. He understood why they had to ask, even if almost no one told the truth. He knew this place was too dangerous for gangs. Turn against one another, lose trust in your crewmates, and you might not survive the next fire.

Just as undeniable changes to the climate have made Cal Fire’s role even more crucial, its dirt-cheap supply of labor is being threatened, as the first trickles of a national movement toward prison reform arrive in California. Fire camps like Holton are supposed to accept only well-behaved inmates with no history of violence, arson, or sex crimes, and so most prisoner firefighters are, like Barr, serving time for low-level offenses, especially drug sales.

With a majority of Americans now questioning whether it is humane or economically sound to keep nonviolent drug offenders, who pose little or no threat to public safety, locked up for extended periods, the exact population of trustworthy inmates devoting their incarceration to wildfire protection has started finding its way back onto the streets much sooner. Because if we can trust guys like Barr on the front lines of a fire with a chainsaw or an axe, should they really be locked up for so long in the first place? At a time when a program like this has never been more necessary, its future has never been more in question.

Photograph by Chris Tuite for BuzzFeed

There is nothing new about putting prisoners to work to cover the cost of their stay. As far back as the 12th century, during the reign of King Henry II, Britain’s private jail operators leased their prisoners out as daily workers to whoever could pay a rate higher than what it cost to give the inmates the food, water, and shelter necessary to survive.

In the 18th century, most criminals in America were punished with fines, beatings, or death. It was the idealistic Quakers who thought incarceration and labor might be a more compassionate and useful alternative. Whether this held in practice is debatable: Although many in Philadelphia’s infamous Walnut Street Jail, which opened in the late 1700s, spent their days making handicrafts like wicker chairs to sell, every single prisoner lived in solitary confinement.

Most of the county jails that began cropping up in the U.S. during the first half of the 19th century made no attempt at reforming or employing inmates. Then in 1867, early muckrakers E.C. Wines and Theodore W. Dwight published a scathing exposé of American jails that called for prisons to become places that taught people how to become better citizens.

Soon, all across the nation, those with an eye on rehabilitation and those with an eye on budgets found common ground in giving prisoners something useful and profitable to do. Leasing convicts to private businesses made a tidy fortune for both state and local governments, especially after slaves were emancipated. In 1878, 73% of Alabama’s entire state revenue came from prison labor. Reconstruction-era plantation owners, though, were hardly incentivized to care about their charges: When any of their starving workers died, they simply asked the state for new ones, at no cost to their bottom line.

In the early 20th century, the tide of public opinion began to turn on prison labor. It wasn’t fair to allow such cheap workers in the market, the argument went, because it hurt competition and drove down wages for everybody. Since the late 1930s, prison labor in the United States has, for the most part, only been able to produce goods or provide services for the public sector.

California’s fire camps began during World War II, when the state’s firefighters went off to fight and the inmates who had been tasked with building and maintaining public highways moved in to take their place. When the war ended, the state decided to keep them there. Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah all have since established fire camps of their own, but even the biggest of those programs is less than half the size of California’s. Now fire camps remain one of the last vestiges of a long American tradition of putting our criminals to work for hardly any money, under the auspices of rehabilitating them.

“Prison labor has been most successful in areas where the risk of dying or being very seriously injured is pretty high,” said W. David Ball, an assistant professor in criminal justice at the Santa Clara University School of Law. After all, he says, convicted criminals have lost the right to manage their own lives, to a certain extent; when Congress passed the 13th Amendment in 1865, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, they made sure to include the following phrase: “except as a punishment for crime.”

Photograph by Wes Schultz

“Atta baby!” Fire Captain Darus Ane shouted, extending his fist for a pound. “Nice work, baby! Beautiful!”

The approaching inmate wheezed back a “Thanks, Cap!” before slowly lifting his hand from where it had been pushing down on his thigh with each step.

A few yards downhill, Barr kept his eyes focused on the ground as he approached the ledge where Ane, a smiling Joe Biden look-alike with darker hair and a more genuine tan, was doling out words of encouragement.

“Maintain! Last 50 to the top!” Ane called to him. Barr huffed and puffed, shaking his head as he passed, refusing to make eye contact with either me or the captain.

Barr had been at camp for six weeks, and he was exhausted. He hadn’t seen a fire yet, but every day he woke up and threw his body into whatever task Ane and the foremen set before him: gathering brush in the forest, clearing debris by the side of the road, pushing through a timed hike like this one.

If he didn’t get to the top in time, he would get written up; dawdle up the mountain more than once, and he could get sent back to jail. He and his 15-man fire crew — crew two — were charging uphill in a steady stream, swerving around rocks and scrub. Some could barely breathe. Others leaped like it was nothing, sweat forming a dark V on the back of their orange jumpsuits.

Once he settled into the camp routine, when the initial relief of being away from the nightmare of county jail wore off, the severity of this work became apparent. The only possible relief would come from getting more physically fit: “You just have to train,” he said.

Ane has been leading inmate crews for two and a half years, enough time for him to hone a tough but upbeat disposition in the hopes that he can reform his charges. “We gotta break them down physically to build them up mentally,” he told me. “We show them that it takes hard work to be successful, and hard work usually pays off.”

The CDCR and state officials often frame the inmate firefighting program in a similar way, emphasizing the benefits of building discipline through physical labor and helping others.

“Doing good things in life can change your whole world for you, because you will be remembered for that something good, instead of the negative,” former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca told future fire camp inmates at a county jail graduation ceremony in 2012.

When Barr finally reached the summit, he was relieved to find that time had yet to run out. But just as he caught his breath it was time to pile back into the truck and head to another mountainside. There, crew two would throw on 40-pound packs, goggles, gloves, helmets, and boots, and spend three or four hours practicing what’s called “cutting line,” the primary contribution that inmates make to the surge of overlapping efforts involved in fighting and containing a wildfire.

When cutting line, the goal is to carve a path of exposed mineral soil in the earth that will stop the flames, blocking their access to more fuel. The work is difficult, hot, and monotonous. The most senior guys on the crew walk in front with chainsaws, and all they do is saw, saw, saw. Other inmates chop the chaparral with a Pulaski, a tool that is half axe, half adze. As one of the newest guys on the crew, Barr was third from the back with a combination rake and hoe, called a McLeod, bending to scrape the dirt and push grasses out of the way until his back was sore and his body drenched in sweat.

Paid firefighters cut line too, sometimes, but mostly they drive the bulldozers, they grip the hoses, they scribble strategy on clipboards, and they dump water and bright red retardant from air tankers and helicopters. Pretty much all inmates will do on a fire is head into steep terrain, where bulldozers can’t reach, and cut line.

“Their value is that force of human power,” said Janet Upton, the deputy director of communications at Cal Fire.

As he toiled in the sun for less $2 a day, Barr couldn’t help but point out what he saw as fire camp’s unacknowledged historical precedent: slavery. (Prisoner firefighters in California earn that base salary and an additional $1 an hour when they are on a fire.) “It’s not right,” he told me.

Barr’s not the only inmate to make that comparison. A few years ago, when University of Toronto sociologist Philip Goodman was working on his dissertation at University of California – Irvine, he spoke to more than 45 prisoner firefighters. Ten used the word “slavery” to describe their experiences, but seven of those ten also used the word “rehabilitation.”

Later that afternoon, back at camp, Barr was free to move about as he pleased: to play Ping-Pong or pinochle, to lift weights, to build a wooden clock with the circle saws in the hobby shop, to catch a movie on one of two big-screen TVs. He could take out as many books as he wanted from the library, rather than just one a week. He could joke around with guys of other races without fear of fights.

One of the inmate chefs was outside plucking corn, peppers, and tomatoes from the camp garden to put in the salsa for that evening’s taco night. Two black Labradors roamed the camp off-leash, creating an oddly domestic feeling, even if they were there to sniff for drugs.

“It’s better than where I was at. I’ll just leave it at that,” Barr said. “Here, at least, you can come outside.”

He mostly hoped to make it through the next 11 months as quickly as possible. He also grew impatient with any talk of how this program could somehow fundamentally change him, as a person, for the better.

Inmates are often insulted by the state’s claims to be teaching them how to work. Most come from poverty, where holding down two minimum wage jobs and putting in 70-hour weeks will get you nowhere fast. Many, as people of color, face profound socially and politically condoned opposition in ascending the socioeconomic ladder, regardless of how hard they work.

Barr only has a high school education, and says selling crack seemed like the most lucrative option available to him. He regrets dropping out of junior college after less than a semester, and he snorts with laughter when he hears that part of the justification for sending him to fight fires is that he must learn how to work hard in order to abandon his criminal ways.

“Of course I knew how to work hard before,” he said. “I was just working hard at something illegal.”

Photograph by Amanda Chicago Lewis for BuzzFeed

Barr shifted in his seat as the Los Angeles County fire truck rumbled along the empty streets of Glendora. The day before, on Jan. 16, three guys in their early twenties had decided to go camping on federal land in Angeles National Forest. “Going to hunt mountain lions,” one posted on Facebook, before tagging his two friends. In the morning, the powerful Santa Ana winds blew a piece of paper from their illegal campfire into the brush, igniting the entire hillside. By the time Barr’s crew rolled in, over 3,600 residents had been evacuated and five homes destroyed due to what was being called the Colby Fire. The blaze had already consumed 1,700 acres since morning.

Barr had been at fire camp for less than three months. The truck stopped, and the crew began to file off. “This was the test,” he said.

January is not typically part of what’s called fire season, when conditions in the western United States are most likely to turn a flicked cigarette butt into a dangerous, expensive nightmare. The Colby Fire was one of over a thousand that came well before the end of spring in 2014, signaling this year would likely bring an unprecedented number of incidents, straining resources across the region.

But the current drought — deemed “exceptional” in July by the federal government — is not an anomaly, a problem that will go away next year. It’s more like a warning shot, signaling a permanent shift in the moisture level of the soil, the brush and the timber. Although most firefighting personnel will hem and haw about why, exactly, the climate is changing, afraid to take what’s seen as a political stance on global warming, they all acknowledge that conditions are getting progressively worse. That means that in the coming years, Cal Fire will need to hire more firefighters and find money to pay for more frequent and intense blazes. Already, the coffers are in trouble.

When Barr got to the Colby Fire, as soon as he started to work, adrenaline flooded his senses, bringing his attention to the task at hand. “That anxiety went away. It was just something regular. It kicked in, my training.”

For 12 hours, from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., he swept the ground with his McLeod, over and over, until the brown dirt turned to silt. They walked and walked, until they were inches from the flames. And a few times, as they strode at a rapid pace across inclines so precipitous they approached the vertical, he slipped and fell, but he always stood back up again, following the foreman, doing whatever was asked of him.

“The foremen I have, they know what they’re doing. I know they wouldn’t put me in a dangerous situation,” he said. “Sometimes they have their days, probably had a bad day with the wife and kids, but other than that they treat us like, you know, like we’re one of them, basically, pretty much.”

Finally, with the first glows of twilight, they headed back to Holton to get some rest before the next shift. When he got to camp, at dawn, Barr heard that some of the guys on another crew had screamed when they first got to the fire.

“Like little girls,” he told me later. “Not crew two! We know what we’re doing.”

On the afternoon of Jan. 17, when Barr returned to the fire for his second day, he could hardly feel the cuts and bruises from where he’d fallen the night before. Driving in, he saw the residents applauding them as they passed.

His crew worked the fire for a week, and by the end he had developed a new respect for the firemen who took custody of him during the day, for their expertise and for the seriousness of their mission.

Usually, inmate firefighters lack the cocksure gait that characterizes paid firefighters. But after his first fire, Barr began to walk with quiet purpose. He stopped muttering, started making eye contact with more people, and seemed to relax a bit.

“You know, maybe it wasn’t bad, coming here,” Barr said a few weeks later. “You feel like you’re doing something, other than just sitting in jail. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Photograph by Wes Schultz

Under strict sentencing guidelines issued in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, nonviolent drug offenders like Barr have been clogging state and federal prisons for years, with no discernible decrease in the number of Americans using or selling drugs. But in this era of deficit reduction and belt-tightening that began with the Great Recession, the public has largely finally grown weary of the expensive fact that United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last August that the federal government would no longer pursue such long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, inspired by reform in states like Texas, Rhode Island, and New York.

California’s drug-offender sentencing policy remains among the strictest in the country. As a result, California’s prisons have long suffered the natural consequences of overcrowding, including delayed medical treatment and inhumane conditions. In 2011, after a protracted legal battle, the Supreme Court ordered California to dramatically reduce the population of its prisons.

To do so, instead of seeking significant sentencing reform for nonviolent drug offenders, Gov. Jerry Brown decided to shift responsibility for most low-level criminals from state prison to county jail, where conditions were not regulated under the court order.

In some counties, this process — euphemistically called “realignment” — didn’t prove to be much of a problem, because they had space in their jails to spare, or made space to spare, but a third of California’s state prison population comes from Los Angeles. Within two years, an additional 8,000 inmates, including Barr, were serving time in L.A. County jails.

Fire camps had always been for state prisoners, not county inmates, because Cal Fire and the CDCR consider it a waste of money to train firefighters who have less than a year of time to serve. So with most low-level offenders no longer being housed at state prison, fire camps must negotiate separate contracts with individual counties, as they did with Los Angeles, in order to keep their barracks full. Barr is one of 528 L.A. County inmates who began filling five local fire camps at the end of last year. To inspire similar deals elsewhere, Brown’s 2014–2015 budget included major financial incentives for counties to send their low-level offenders to fire camp. And to encourage inmates like Barr to sign up, county inmates who go to fire camp serve only 35% of their sentences, even as their counterparts from state prison serve 50% or even 80%.

But in the next few years, California may see more serious sentencing reform, which would help bring nonviolent drug offenders back to their families faster but would significantly damage the state’s firefighting capabilities at a time when every penny counts.

Already, in 2012, voters passed a law that eliminated life sentences for most third-strike nonviolent offenders; next week, voters will likely pass a ballot measure called Proposition 47 that would go even further, downgrading drug possession and minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. And at the end of September, Brown signed a bill that will reduce sentences for crack sales to the same level as cocaine sales, starting in 2015. Lynne Lyman, Drug Policy Alliance’s California state director, said she hopes this legislative win signals Brown will tackle more comprehensive sentencing reform for drug dealers if he is elected to a second term in November.

After all, most people, other than law enforcement lobbying groups, now see the war on drugs as well intentioned but overzealous, sidelining perfectly good workers and making it difficult for them to re-enter the legitimate economy.

So in the coming years, as fires increase and low-level prisoners go home earlier, California will need to make a choice: Pay full price for its firefighting workforce, or send more violent inmates out into the wilderness with powerful tools and very little security.

Photograph by Wes Schultz

Barr had never used a chainsaw before, and it was lighter in his hands than he expected it to be. Over the course of the spring, as more and more inmates arrived from L.A. County jail, Barr had started to settle into the role of veteran. By the beginning of summer, Holton had transferred the bulk of its state prisoners to help fill spots at other fire camps around California.

Only 10 now draw from the county jail population, and because lower-level offenders are no longer being housed at state prison, there are far fewer nonviolent inmates available to supply the other 32. Inmates are qualifying who never would have five years ago.

So the foreman suggested Barr skip a few ranks and move right to the front, as the sawyer. “I got a lot of pull,” Barr explained. “Everyone knows me.” He revved the engine and contemplated the tangle of scrub oak blocking the path before him.

The CDCR says it thoroughly evaluates every prisoner firefighter. But in 2011, before realignment even began, the Redding Record-Searchlight, a newspaper in Northern California, investigated the fire camp population between 2005 and 2010 and found that, despite the CDCR’s supposedly strict screening, a fifth of all inmate firefighters had committed violent crimes, including carjacking, armed robbery, and manslaughter.

Of course, there is no perfect litmus test to determine whether a convicted criminal will take the firefighting job seriously, or whether he will just do the minimum necessary to stay in camp. And nonviolent drug offenders aren’t even necessarily the most cooperative of the criminal population: Studies show those who committed violent crimes are not more likely than nonviolent criminals to be violent once incarcerated.

The challenge, Barr realized, as one branch, then another, fell to his feet, was in the angles. How were you supposed to know where to start the chop, and which direction to slash in? Surrounded by the stench of gasoline, Barr took another step forward, but before he knew what was happening, the chain got caught on something and slammed to a stop. Still running, the saw convulsively rebounded, bucking backward into his legs with unexpected torque.

“Twice. I cut myself twice,” he said. He didn’t get hurt, but he did manage to slice through his chaps, which are made from several layers of Kevlar, a material often used in body armor because it is five times stronger than steel.

“Twice!” he said again, as though he can’t even believe he was allowed to keep using the saw after cutting his chaps the first time. “So they’re like, you know, we’ll just make you a bucker.” The bucker walks a few feet behind the sawyer, grabbing the brush as it falls and tossing it away from the flames.

“Good thing I had those chaps,” he said.

Trusting an inexperienced criminal with a chainsaw hints at the peculiar, simultaneous empowerment and dehumanization that prisoner firefighters experience. And the use of such powerful machinery is one of the most controversial aspects of fire camp. But most people are less concerned about whether inmates will hurt themselves unintentionally and more worried about whether any criminal should be handed such potentially harmful tools of destruction.

“We extend a lot of trust,” said Lt. Dave Foote, who commands Camp No. 11, in Acton. “The first time I saw an inmate with a chainsaw I thought, Man, I made a wrong decision to come here.”

Even a polite inmate, a trustworthy inmate, might be cutting line in the wilderness one morning and then suddenly run off into the woods with his Pulaski axe. When firefighters take custody of the inmates during the day, there are no CDCR guards around to protect them. It’s just 15 to 17 inmates, alone in the middle of nowhere with chainsaws, axes, rakes, and two or three firefighters.

Holton is one of only two camps in the state surrounded by a low fence; the other 40 are wide open. Holton is also less than a mile away from Angeles Shooting Range, where you can buy and repair guns, pick up some ammo, or take an accuracy class. Ron Cottriel, the 74-year-old manager there, says he never worries about the safety of his staff and his customers, despite being so close to a hundred prisoners.

“Criminals are stupid, but they’re not that stupid,” he said. “You don’t come in here and expect to do harm when everybody is armed.”

Then again, about half the people who escaped from California prisons in 2011 and 2012 were prisoner firefighters. In 2005, an inmate walked away from a fire camp in Humboldt County; after nearly two years on the run, he shot and killed a San Francisco police officer.

Back when he was a state senator, Congressman Doug LaMalfa attempted to pass legislation that would provide more detailed information to the firefighters who take custody during the day about the criminal history of the inmates they are overseeing. Brown vetoed the bill, calling it unnecessary.

Now LaMalfa worries that we are too trusting, especially given the rising number of violent offenders at camps still supplied by state prison populations. After all, many of the projects that inmate firefighters do during the day, including landscaping at public parks, happen in and around towns.

LaMalfa asked, “Do you really want your kids to walk anywhere near where that’s going on?”

Photograph by Wes Schultz

As the truck wended its way up Highway 32, Barr surveyed the mountains from the window, noting that there was manzanita up here too, just like near Holton. It was after sunrise on Tuesday, July 29, and he and his crew were a few hours outside of San Francisco, about to begin their second 24-hour shift in three days.

One of their usual foremen had just been transferred, and a new guy who had never worked with inmates had come to take his place, but Barr wasn’t worried. He knew what he was doing. This fire, the Web Fire, was a minor incident, having burned fewer than 500 acres, and the one he had worked the day before, the Sand Fire, had been mostly extinguished by the time crew two showed up to do what’s called “mop-up.” He was only four months from freedom.

When they parked, the temperature outside was only 70 degrees, but over the course of the day it was supposed to climb to 102. Throwing 40-pound packs on over their gear, they set off on a three-hour hike west into Web Hollow.

Soon they reached their assigned area at the southern edge of the fire and got to work. Other than occasional shouts to “Bump up!” or “Bump down!” the mountain, the crew stayed quiet as they trekked sideways across the steep incline. It was too intense to talk.

“It was treacherous, going up that mountain,” Barr told me. “We hiked it like three times, then we had to go back down and get water, and then we had to go back up there and sleep, and watch the mountain. The mountain was still on fire.”

As the time ticked by, Barr’s body fell into the rhythm established by a year of grueling hikes and daily practice. The physical exertion, the mental stress, the imminent dangers — none of it really bothered him anymore. The only thing he never felt he could fully adjust to and forget about was the heat: the sticky, oppressive heat.

On Wednesday morning, when Barr got off his shift, he was taken to the nearest fire camp an hour away. He ate some fruit and a breakfast burrito, took a shower, and prepared for his next 24-hour shift, which started the following morning. Several hundred miles from home, he was exhausted from sleeping on the rocky ground, he was dusted with soot from head to toe, and he was being escorted around camp by a tough CDCR guard who cut him no slack.

But he was comfortable, grateful — happy, even, that he didn’t have to spend this past year surrounded by 131 other criminals in a loud, disgusting room, with Iron Man playing on repeat. Even as he insisted that the experience hasn’t changed him, as a person, he admitted that fire camp turned the time he had to serve from something soul-crushing into something productive. He does feel angry, though, when he thinks about how much cash he’ll be leaving with — maybe $1,200 at most for an entire year of work.

“Pshh, this might be beyond slavery, whatever this is,” Barr told me, leaning forward to rest his arms onto the fire camp picnic table. He spoke with more confidence and ease than he had at any point in the past year, casually dismissing the previous day’s labor as easy in one breath while comparing the foremen to overseers in the next. “They don’t have a whip. That’s the difference,” he said. He laughed.

The one thing he did know, as he contemplated what he’d do once he got out: He didn’t want to be a firefighter unless he had absolutely no other choice for employment. He’d never gotten over the physical discomfort of being around the hot flames. Every time was like the first time. It was counterintuitive to get this close to such heat, like jumping into an oven.

It’s not easy for inmate firefighters to make the transition into professional firefighting. Wildland firefighter jobs are so competitive that 200 or 300 applications might come in for one opening, and Cal Fire is reluctant to promote the fact that they might hire well-trained felons over people with no criminal record, even for seasonal jobs. The Los Angeles County Fire Department won’t hire felons at all. Still, an estimated 3 to 5% of inmates do make the jump, often by working with the U.S. Forest Service. But Barr would really prefer to do something else.

He explained he’d been practicing his algebra; reading up on stocks, bonds, and real estate; and savoring Machiavelli’s The Prince. He’d also been really into biographies lately because he likes reading about real people who achieve success. “I got plans to be a millionaire when I get out,” he said. “I just gotta figure out how.”

At the end of September, California announced that it had run through the fiscal year’s entire wildfire budget in only three months and would need to start tapping into reserves meant for all natural disasters. The now never-ending fire season continues unabated, but any hopes that the federal government might offer additional help fizzled in August, when a bill that would increase funding for wildfire suppression died in the House of Representatives.

Now the state must figure out how to do more with less. And one of the best ways to save money when fighting fires? Send in the inmates. The CDCR confirmed it does plan to open at least one new camp in the next few years.

“Yeah, we get exploited as far as the money, but I love going out there,” Barr said. “It makes time go by.”

Photograph by Chris Tuite for BuzzFeed

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