WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
Photograph by Brian L. Frank
Incarcerated firefighters are on the frontlines every day battling wildfires across the U.S. The Frontline looks at the expansion of such programs across Western states—and the need to shift away from prison labor to prepare for climate disaster.
The U.S. was built on slavery. Private and public businesses could count on Black and Brown bodies to conduct hard labor for free. Nowadays, that’s wildly illegal and morally unacceptable—except, well, in prisons.
In fact, at least eight Western states rely on cheap prison labor to combat wildfires, which are increasingly growing out of control due to climate change. As of publishing, 63 large fires remain uncontained in the U.S. Across the West, many individuals put their lives on the line for meager pay and, mostly, the chance to return home a little sooner.
Welcome to The Frontline, where disaster response must center human rights. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. States save millions of dollars a year—up to $100 million in California alone—by employing incarcerated people to fight fires instead of hiring more wildland firefighters with proper salaries and benefits packages. As wildfires grow increasingly extreme due to rising temperatures and dry lands, these first responders deserve more.
Taniesha Moore’s husband, Donnell Marin, should’ve come home Friday. He’s been serving a sentence with California and is currently stationed at the Holton Conservation Camp in Sylmar, California, where he’s fought wildfires, including the 2020 Bobcat Fire. Marin’s not actively on the fire line now, but he’s not coming home yet, either.
Internal sentencing errors with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation unexpectedly changed his release date, reported the Sacramento Bee, and now Moore doesn’t expect him home until the fall. “I think it’s happening because they want to keep the firefighters there a little bit longer,” she told the Sacramento Bee.
Moore isn’t alone in this thinking: Many advocates worry that this dependence on prison labor for wildfires creates a demand for more people behind bars. And climate justice doesn’t involve Black, Indigenous, and other people of color losing their freedom. Climate justice requires the opposite: more liberation, more opportunities, more equity. It’s about addressing the climate crisis lovingly—without putting more people in harm’s way.
“We all have concerns about what our brothers and sisters on the frontlines are going to face with these severe and unpredictable fires,” said Amika Mota, a formerly incarcerated wildland firefighter who is now the policy director of Young Women’s Freedom Center, a gender-inclusive group dedicated to young people affected by incarceration. “As long as the state can make a profit off us, they’re always going to have a vested interest in tangling and trapping us in the system.”
“We really need to shift the paradigm toward proactive ecological fire management that is a high-wage, high-skill, high-status career available to all people.”
The U.S. prison system houses the largest share of the world’s incarcerated: an estimated 1.8 million people. And it’s not hard to imagine why: Prison labor is a billion-dollar industry. And yet the inmate crews on the frontline are paid embarrassing wages. The amount varies by state. In Oregon, any one of the 290 firefighters are paid between $6 to $9.80 a day. In New Mexico, the current 12-person crew earns $1.50 to $2.50 an hour depending on their qualifications and assignments. In Arizona, the rate is steady at $1.50 an hour—unless crews are conducting fire prevention projects. Then, it’s only $1 an hour.
Firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection—who are among the best paid in the country—earn nearly $50,000 a year for entry-level positions. That doesn’t even include the benefits, such as healthcare and pensions. This is the grand appeal of prison labor: It’s cheap. Colorado inmate crews had the highest daily rates Atmos was able to confirm: $40 to $50 a day. And officials there are celebrating the program’s recent expansion, which will welcome incarcerated people into fire prevention and mitigation work. Arizona is also increasing its incarcerated firefighting force.
For many state officials, their programs are a source of pride as they offer inmates a chance to do respectable, meaningful work. And, sure, the perks are also why many incarcerated folks sign up for these programs in the first place. They often receive improved housing, time outdoors, and even reduced sentences, but advocates argue this isn’t enough—not for the risk level and not for the trauma that comes with keeping families like Moore’s separated. She and Marin share a 23-year-old daughter who’s growing up with a father behind bars. If he’s not a harm to society—if his job is, in fact, to protect society—why should he be incarcerated in the first place?
Like many other incarcerated wildland firefighters, Marin is Black. That’s no coincidence. Nationally, Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people, according to the NAACP. Timothy Ingalsbee sees this play out on the field.
“There are very few African American wildland firefighters,” said Ingalsbee, the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (better known as FUSEE), a nonprofit promoting a more equitable and sustainable approach to fire management. “The place you see them most is on inmate crews.”
This interest in growing the incarcerated wildland workforce is the wrong direction for the industry, Ingalsbee said. He wants to see federal and state governments invest in opportunities for individuals to become firefighters without going to prison first. He believes in fostering youth interest, especially among troubled kids who may otherwise wind up in jail if they’re not guided toward impactful opportunities. And the industry focus should move beyond fire response and into fire prevention, he said—such as engaging with Indigenous and tribal nations to bring back their fire management practices.
“We really need to shift the paradigm toward proactive ecological fire management that is a high-wage, high-skill, high-status career available to all people,” Ingalsbee said. “That’s the better future.”