Nowadays, wildfire season is year-round. The winter does offer some rest, however, for the firefighters who confront the flames. Wildland firefighters aren’t your average firefighters. They don’t spray hoses of water. They chainsaw trees to prevent the spread of fire. They hike miles up mountains, an axe by their side.
Around the country, some firefighters may be as young as 18—and paid as low as $1 an hour. They’re incarcerated juveniles fighting fires to help bring them closer to freedom.
Welcome to The Frontline, your reminder that incarcerated people matter, too. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Prison labor is rooted in slavery. The 13th Amendment kept slavery alive through a simple clause: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” However, the youth fire camps that put mostly Black and Brown teens on the frontlines of wildfires aren’t so black and white. In fact, some prison advocates want to see more camps like them; they see the camps as models for restorative justice helping teens build community, camaraderie, and a connection to the outdoors.
Ezekiel Nishiyama was only 15 when he was first incarcerated. He spent his last year at the Pine Grove Conservation Camp, nestled on the foothills of the Sierras near Sacramento, California. He had to work hard to get there, building a record of good behavior to even be considered for the camp’s program, which involves community service, forest maintenance, and firefighting.
“I felt confident,” Nishiyama said. “I wanted to be a firefighter. I used to think in my head, This is what I want to do when I come home.”
He didn’t ultimately take that path. Instead, the now 20-year-old works at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition as a policy and community organizer. But Nishiyama speaks highly of his time at Pine Grove as a 17- and 18-year-old. He’s now 20 years old. His hard labor there cut his sentence by a year and helped him prepare for the real world upon his release.
His experience at Pine Grove is one of many. While Pine Grove is California’s only juvenile fire camp, others like it exist across the U.S. Atmos couldn’t confirm an exact number, but we could identify at least three others like it in the U.S.: one in Washington, Arizona, and North Carolina. These camps are quite different from the stereotypical prison. The youth aren’t confined to a cell. They’re outside. They’re working together versus fighting each other as they might otherwise be in a traditional detention facility. As the climate crisis makes wildfire seasons longer, smokier, and deadlier, however, these camps deserve a closer look.
“With the harm that I once committed, I needed to give back to my community. There should be more options and career opportunities for young people, but firefighting was a lot better than sitting in a cell.”
Wildfire smoke exposure is no joke. It can affect the heart, lungs, brain, and even sperm. That’s because smoke is made up of tiny particles that infiltrate your body, bringing whatever toxins were burned in the flames with them. It’s critical that firefighters have access to proper protection and long-term care after incarceration given the ways smoke can impact the body long after it’s inhaled, said Tom Corringham, a research economist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has published research on the impact of wildfire smoke on young people.
Young wildland firefighters, in particular, are an under-researched section of the workforce, which is alarming, said Carlee Purdum, a research assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. Though the camps are sold on claims around rehabilitation, Purdum said there’s “very little evidence” that documents how successful the camps are at keeping youth from returning to prison. Her own research on BRIDGE, North Carolina’s program for incarcerated youth, found little support for that claim. “These findings suggest that incarcerated people are exploited by the BRIDGE program,” the paper reads.
“What was interesting about North Carolina is that they want young men,” Purdum said. “They want young men who will be able to do the work and who are able to be worked very hard in these manual labor conditions, in these hazardous conditions. That’s their ideal target labor market for this kind of work.”
You see this in California, too. Fireboys, a documentary released earlier this year, followed the happenings of Pine Grove over six years. At one point, Julie Hutchinson, a CalFire training captain, says in the film: “It’s impressive, the work they can do. One of the cool things about these guys versus the adults is as long as there’s work to do, they typically will keep going… These guys will work until they can’t anymore.”
While the film clearly shows the perks of life on the fire line—no fences, good food, and friendship—it also illustrates how hard the work is. Not all who apply for the program can pass the grueling two-week training bootcamp. Those who do are sometimes heartbroken to leave it behind when their sentence is up. You can see why Nishiyama is so grateful to the program—but you also understand why the conditions raise red flags for researchers like Purdum.
Meanwhile, Sue Burrell, policy director at the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, has spent decades criticizing California’s incarceration system but always saw Pine Grove as “the one bright light” because of the freedom these young men are afforded despite their incarceration.
“It’s the kind of program we need a lot more of where young people learn things that they could apply when they’re released and programs that make them feel proud of what they’re doing and help them feel they’re giving back to the community,” Burrell said. “I think that’s an experience many of them haven’t had before, and it’s an important one.”
Fireboys co-directors Drew Dickler and Jake Hochendoner went into the project back in 2015 from a shared prison abolitionist perspective, they said. While visiting Pine Grove, it was easy for them to forget the camp is a prison. By the time they finished the documentary, they walked away feeling a sense of appreciation for the program and the transformation from boys to men they witnessed. They can acknowledge the program’s impact while recognizing its shortcomings, such as the lack of opportunity for firefighters once they’re released or the strenuous demand on their bodies.
“Everything that works about camp—the outdoor setting, the lack of fences, the ability to hug and eat with your family, the sense of actualization, of camaraderie, of hard work—all those things aren’t actually characteristics of our prison system,” Dickler said. “Our vision and what we want to be asking with the film is, What if there were programs like this that weren’t prisons at all?”
Nishiyama, on the other hand, wants to see more varied versions of the camps across prison rather than outside it. Why is firefighting the only option for incarcerated youth? Not all young people want to become firefighters. Burrell suggests the camps could do other conservation and land restoration work unrelated to fire in response to the worsening climate crisis. Incarcerated folks deserve their chance to redefine themselves and heal from whatever landed them behind bars—by connecting to the land and by serving their communities.
“With the harm that I once committed, I needed to give back to my community,” Nishiyama said. “There should be more options and career opportunities for young people, but firefighting was a lot better than sitting in a cell.”
While the camps don’t keep the youth isolated in cells, they are still prisons. After a day putting their lives at risk, they don’t get to return home to their families. They return to camps where correctional officers immediately strip search them. At Washington’s Naselle Youth Camp, which is on its final legs and ended its firefighting program in 2019, a 16-year-old escaped and shot himself in the head back in 2015. He miraculously survived, but the incident raised questions around their mental well-being when in detention. Earlier this year, a former camp worker was arrested for an alleged sexual abuse dating back to 2018 at the facility.
Washington Department of Natural Resources only works with three youth at the moment given the camp’s decline and lack of youth older than 18. They don’t fight fires anymore. Instead, they mostly do logging work, cutting down trees for timber and have even done work for environmental groups, such as The Nature Conservancy.
“I have seen the stories of young firefighters who found the program transformational, but, to me, that comes across as propaganda… Incarceration is incredibly damaging and traumatizing to youth.”
It’s still dangerous labor, though: Last year, a youth older than 18 was cutting a tree with a chainsaw and needed help pushing and pulling it. Another youth younger than 18 assisted him and fell into the saw and injured his leg, according to Karen Zirkle, an assistant division manager for wildland fire management at the Department of Natural Resources. He was back on the job in 10 days. The injury was “life-threatening,” said a department employee of five years who was aware of the incident and has firefighting experience—he asked to remain anonymous.
“I have seen the stories of young firefighters who found the program transformational,” he said, “but, to me, that comes across as propaganda. A lot of the youth don’t seem to want to be there, which makes sense. They’re youth, and they’re incarcerated. I don’t know what sort of trouble they got into to get there, but on the whole I don’t think that the camp program is necessarily either beneficial to the state or them as incarcerated people. Incarceration is incredibly damaging and traumatizing to youth.”
Nishiyama at least has some fond memories back at Pine Grove in California. It was 2019, and a major snowstorm had hit camp. His mom rented a Jeep to drive out to him from Los Angeles. She brought him fresh sushi, a dish he hadn’t eaten in three years. Afterward, his mom and him ran outside to play in the snow. “I threw a snowball at her, and she got me, too,” he smiled.
None of this would’ve been possible in a traditional prison—not the sushi or the snowball fight. Then again, he wouldn’t have missed her to begin with had he been at home, free and by her side.