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June 19, 2013

Inmates Fight Fires, Gain Skills for Life After Prison

by Elizabeth Lee

The western state of California is known for wildfires that can quickly burn out of control, and this year the fire season has been extremely busy. Because of the fire risk, the state has some of the most experienced firefighters in the industry. It also enlists the help of prisoners to stop the fires.
 
Every morning, a select group of inmates in orange jumpsuits heads to work as firefighters. If there is no fire to fight, they painstakingly clean all the tools necessary to create the fire breaks that can stop a blaze from spreading.  
 
In California, physically fit inmates with no history of violent crimes have the option of training and working as firefighters while serving their time. Many get their sentences reduced in return. But that was not the program's only appeal for convicted robber Louie Orozco.

“It’s pretty exciting. It’s an adrenaline rush, it’s fun at the same time. You’re expected to go out there and fight fires. Climb thousands of feet up hills, rocky terrain, sometimes sandy terrain, with tools you got anywhere between 30 and 50 pounds [13 and 22 kilograms] of gear on your back,” said Orozco.
 
Inmates in California have been used as fire fighters for more than 60 years. They also do community service projects and much more, said Captain Mike Mohler of the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“Our crews are used during floods, search-and-rescue operations. They put in about 2.5 million hours a year in just emergency response alone,” said Mohler.

California is not the only state that uses inmate firefighters, but its program is seen as a national model.

More than 4,000 California inmates serve as firefighters, often working side-by-side with professionals. Captain Kevin Krauss has been supervising inmate firefighters for seven years.  
 
“I treat them like firefighters. I demand they act like firefighters, and I tell them if they want to be heroes, they can be out here, if they want to be zeros (losers) they can go back and they can be incarcerated inside. It’s their choice,” he said.

Krauss said most of them choose to stay with the tough and often dangerous job, instead of spending their days behind prison walls.

“They get baptized by the devil out on the line. It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s physically demanding. [There is] Sleep deprivation,” he said.

They receive a small wage - minimal compared with the salary of a professional firefighter. Inmates were originally used as cheap labor, but over the years, the program has evolved. It now tries to rehabilitate inmates and help them develop new skills that go beyond fighting fires.

Orozco also works in a graphic design shop next to the garage that houses the fire trucks. He said this experience has given him a new sense of confidence.

“Mentally I see that I can do things I never thought possible. Climbing thousands and thousands of feet up a mountain with gear on your back,” he said.
 
Orozco turns 40 this year, and said he’s too old to keep fighting fires after he is released from prison in six months. He plans to use the graphic design skills he has learned to start a new life... knowing that after facing wildfires, he can deal with any challenge that comes with life after prison.