Previously incarcerated wildland firefighters in the field. (Photograph by Ed Kashi / Talking Eyes Media)

On the Fire Line After Prison

WORDS BY BRANDON SMITH

AS TOLD TO YESSENIA FUNES

Brandon Smith is a formerly incarcerated wildland firefighter working to dismantle the prison-industrial complex—by training others like him to fight wildfires. He shares his story on The Frontline.

I was 22 years old the first time I landed behind bars. That was back in 2006. They picked me up on charges of drug possession with intent to sell—something that’s legal now in my state of California. Things changed after I was arrested in 2012—the ninth time in under six years. At the time, I felt like everything was lost. I didn’t know a way out of the life I had been living. When I got to Wasco State Prison, where I was meant to spend my 32-month sentence, I asked God to help me figure out how to build a better life.

 

I guess he was listening. A prison counselor came to my cell 30 days after I arrived and asked if I wanted to go to fire camp, where incarcerated folks go to train and fight wildfires across California. I initially said no because fire scared the heck out of me. (C’mon, I grew up watching films like the 1991 action thriller Backdraft and the animated kid’s movie FernGully: The Last Rainforest.) I joined only after everyone else told me fire camp was the highest-paying job available. How could I say no to that?

 

The program is far from perfect—I was paid only $1.50 a day—but it offered me a chance to live a life different from what I led in my cell. The fire camp was closer to my family, so I got to see them every other week. I no longer lived under the watch of gun towers. I grew to love the career, but I struggled to continue the work once I was released in 2014. That’s why I founded the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) a year later. Just as the free world wasn’t keen to invite me to the fire line, it wasn’t hiring my brothers and sisters coming out of prison, either. But we’ve got the experience and know-how—we’ve only ever needed an opportunity. 

 

I still remember my first fire back at camp. I prayed my crew wouldn’t get called, but God knew what he was doing. I remember the captains calling the fire, engine, and helicopter crews to roll out. I was so scared, I kept asking God to keep us safe. I had trained for this moment, but I never actually fought a real wildfire—until I did. 

Brandon Smith, cofounder of FFRP. (Photograph by Ed Kashi / Talking Eyes Media)

It was like an Avengers movie. Helicopters and engines were everywhere. Chainsaws were revving. My job was lead sawyer, so the chainsaw was my specialty. Some 14 to 20 people would line up behind me. I’d cut down the trees, and they’d clean them up. We worked 24 hours on that first fire. When we left, the community cheered us on with signs that read, “Thank you.” At first, I didn’t realize they were thanking us. Then, it hit me. We had just saved the town of Idyllwild, California.

 

Wildland firefighting gave me a purpose in my life. It offered me a way to give back. When I got out, I wanted to continue on this path, but there were no avenues for me. I’d try to apply for jobs at different fire stations and agencies. They’d tell me I lacked experience and certifications even though I had just spent the last two years fighting wildfires professionally. I wasn’t taken seriously until I volunteered as a firefighter. Then, I finally got a job with the U.S. Forest Service.

 

Landing a job shouldn’t have been so difficult. Formerly incarcerated people are people. We deserve the right to thrive. We deserve an opportunity to better our lives. People judge us for our past, but we are not our past. We are folks who are moving forward. We live in a state where wildfires have been increasing in severity and intensity, yet Governor Gavin Newsom won’t utilize us even though he says the state needs more firefighters. We can do the jobs when we’re incarcerated but not when we come home? What sense does that make?

 

That’s why I founded FFRP alongside my cofounder Royal Ramey. We incorporated the program in 2018 after functioning for three years informally, and then I joined the prison reform organization JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA) as part of its Leading With Conviction cohort, which reminded me low-level offenders like myself shouldn’t be in prison in the first place. The program taught me how to share my story and work with other organizations so we can help reduce the prison population by half by 2030. Just as the climate movement wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, the prison abolitionist movement wants to cut the prison population in half by 2030. JLUSA also showed me how to fundraise, a tool that’s come in handy with FFRP. When I first launched the program, I paid for everything out of pocket. Now, we rely on philanthropy—as well as government and private contracts. 

Deputy Chief Demetreus Gonzales (in white helmet) speaks to FFRP participants in the field. (Photograph by Ed Kashi / Talking Eyes Media)

So far, we’ve placed 168 people into permanent fire careers. Our program is 98% people of color and 15% women. The majority of firefighters today are white men from rural areas, but incarcerated people are largely people of color from urban areas. We want to uproot the idea that women, Black and Brown people, or those who’ve served time can’t be firefighters. We can—and we are. The Buffalo Soldiers of 1910 reminds us of the rich history Black folks share on the fire line.

 

Our program offers several resources. Firstly, we visit fire camps to let people on the inside know that they can do this work when they’re out. We also go recruit at schools and other community-based organizations because our work has expanded beyond helping people who have come out of prison. We also want to keep people out of prison. Once someone is recruited, we connect them with a case manager who can make sure they’ve got all that they need to succeed: housing, a driver’s license, mental health resources. We also set them up with an employment coordinator who helps them fill out resumes and teach them interview skills.

 

Then, there’s our career training program, which runs for six months Monday through Thursday. Here, we help the cohort build the physical skills necessary to fight fires—in part by doing fire prevention work that also benefits the community—and also bring them into the classroom so they can learn and gain the certifications they need for these jobs. We pay them $540 a week for their time. Right now, we’ve got 40 people training in Los Angeles and 21 in West Oakland. They’ll be graduating come April. After that, our focus is to transition them into jobs with the state, federal, or even local governments.

 

Ultimately, though, the work leads us to the fire line. FFRP finally has its own private fire department of about 20 people. We dispatch throughout California. Right now, the fire season is going up. Our graduates and crews have fought over 15 fires so far in 2022 alone. Luckily, we haven’t been called out to the deadly McKinney Fire, which has killed four people and injured seven. The most important thing is for us to stay ready. A fire can pop off at a moment’s notice. The community is counting on us to jump in.

Previously incarcerated firefighters with FFRP in the field. (Photograph by Ed Kashi / Talking Eyes Media)

Every time we’re on the fire line, we make sure we’re representing the formerly incarcerated population. That’s how we change the conversation. The fires won’t stop—climate change is making sure of that—but we’ll be here to put them out. We’re public servants, and we’re dedicated to keeping our communities safe. We only ask that the public welcome us and try to see incarcerated folks a little differently.

 

If our labor is valuable when we’re behind bars, why is it treated as worthless when we’re out? We all deserve an opportunity to change our lives. That’s what my program offers—and I won’t stop until the prison-industrial complex changes, too.

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