Two days after the fires in Sylmar burned twenty-nine horses alive at a local ranch owned by the Padilla family, the evacuation orders were starting to be lifted. A rancher rode her horse calmly along Tujunga Canyon Boulevard, ash and dirt clinging to her clothes and arms. I was driving around the LA neighborhoods of Sylmar, Lake View Terrace and Tujunga in the San Fernando Valley, hugging the outer perimeter of the 16,000-acre Creek Fire, one of the eleven fires that tore across Southern California last month. A few minutes after spotting the rancher on her horse, I pulled off the road slightly before a police checkpoint. The officers, slouched against their motorcycles, were only letting residents pass. It was sunset and the air was still visibly thick with smoke. The neighborhood was mostly deserted, but a small trickle of residents could be seen pulling into their driveways. On the side of the road, a few cheerful, handwritten signs had already sprung up. Almost universally, they read: THANK YOU LAPD, FIREFIGHTERS AND FIRST RESPONDERS. It is difficult to estimate exactly how many of Tujunga’s inhabitants knew that their homes hadn’t been saved by firemen, but by ‘angels in orange’, or the thousands of convicts who have kept Californians safe from wildfires since World War II. Not a single sign mentioned them by name.
While Californians may not know them by name, the angels always turn out in force when a fire erupts. On December 6, when some of the blazes in Los Angeles County were at their peak, the official Twitter account for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) tweeted that 1,500 angels were on fire lines in the LA, Ventura and San Bernardino counties, dispatched from as far north as the Bay Area. Going by these figures, these angels presently constitute about a fifth of California’s active firefighters. According to a newsletter published by the CDCR, two of these angels succumbed to injuries in 2017. Matthew Beck, twenty-six, from Los Angeles County, was crushed by a tree “clearing brush in the Hoopa area” on May 25. Then, on July 12, Frank Anaya, twenty-two, from Ventura County, was fighting a fire near Lakeside “when his leg and femoral artery were severely cut.” Same headline— “CDCR inmate firefighter dies of injuries”—different day. Simply put: Californians owe these convicts a debt of gratitude they will likely never repay: imprisoned on relatively minor charges, Beck and Anaya perished protecting American lives and property for a dollar an hour. This, in fact, is the current rate of remuneration these angels can expect: a dollar an hour when on duty, two dollars a day when idle, and some credit towards their parole.
These men and women constitute one of the Golden State’s elite teams of firefighters, and are managed by the CDCR’s Conservation Camp program. A joint initiative of the CDCR and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), the Conservation Camp program aims to “provide an able-bodied, trained work force for fire suppression and other emergencies such as floods and earthquakes.” The initiative manages forty-three fire camps across the state, with five in Los Angeles County: Acton, Malibu, Holton in Lake View Terrace, Francisquito in Santa Clarita, and Fenner Canyon in Valyermo. The CDCR explains on its website that prospective angels only come from minimum-custody facilities, and that convictions including arson, violent crimes and sexual offenses “automatically make an inmate ineligible.” Once angels are selected, they must earn the “right to work” by completing training with the CalFire, which includes a week of classroom instruction and a second week in the field.
Once they’ve completed their training and have passed their physicals, the angels don their orange jumpsuits and heavy packs and rush to wherever needed. Dying for a dollar an hour while fighting to keep someone’s home from burning is of course entirely constitutional: a system underpinned by the principle established by the 13th Amendment, which states that: “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That “except” is the foundation for the multi-billion dollar corrections industry. Unlike ordinary citizens, inmates are not protected by US labor laws, and were it not for the efforts of unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, the extent of their exploitation would be largely invisible.
Local officials appear oblivious to the system’s tragic unfairness. On December 7, Bob Hertzberg, a Democratic State Senator tweeted that “Not many people realize that @CACorrections inmates are critical in fire emergencies. Right now, 1,500 inmate firefighters are on the fire lines at the #CreekFire, #SkirballFire and others across SoCal.” Drawing attention to it as if it was a fun fact of the day, Senator Hertzberg was actually regurgitating an old mantra. As the CDCR’s spokesman Bill Sessa has claimed, “the value of this program is [that] it teaches people life skills that most of us take for granted but many of them came to prison without. […] They learn discipline and to show up on time, and some leadership.” Sessa has also routinely taken care to stress how warm a welcome the angels are usually given by their grateful host communities: “They are treated as firefighters, not as inmates.”
Besides, the logic goes, what else would these inmates do? Many would happily jump at the chance of working outdoors and gaining skills, right? Newspaper stories often accept that thinking, producing headlines such as “Firefighting inmates in California fill a void, gain a lot,” (East Bay Times) or “Nearly a quarter of firefighters working Southern California’s big fires are inmates. Here’s how they’re helping” (Los Angeles Daily News). What underpins this flawed logic is the belief that putting an inmate in a fire-repellent jumpsuit is both a means to rehabilitate said inmate and to save taxpayer dollars. In fact, the CDCR celebrates this unfair reality, estimating that the program provides “three million person-hours responding to fires and other emergencies and seven million person-hours in community service projects, saving California taxpayers approximately $100 million” in an average year.
Nevertheless, the numbers don’t quite add up. In an editorial the Los Angeles Times drew attention to one of the Golden State’s great governmental mysteries: “Somehow, California’s prison costs have kept going up even while inmate numbers have dropped.” As reported by Reuters (Jan 6), the inmate population is down, but costs have tripled, even though no one seems to know why. At the same time, as The Atlantic’s Annika Neklason pointed out, the state’s budget for fighting fires has grown from $963 million to over $1.8 billion.
In September, Governor Jerry Brown once again called for prison reform, but it is evident that obstacles remain. Proposition 57, which passed with almost 65 percent of the vote in November 2016, recently improved a California inmate’s chances to secure parole. But state legislators are moving to limit this reform by expanding the list of crimes classified as violent. For now, two kinds of firefighters will continue to risk their lives to battle the flames in California: some will wear yellow and be seen as true firemen, and others will wear orange; yet the latter will die for a dollar, their families will receive no benefits, their names will be forgotten and no handwritten signs will be put up to thank them. The former, however, will be remembered as heroes. For doing the same job.
The fires are still burning, but the people in Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino and San Diego counties are beginning to pick up the pieces. The weekend also witnessed the fires’ first victim: Virginia Pesola from Santa Paula, who was found dead in her car of smoke inhalation. Hundreds of thousands of hectares have already been burnt, and thousands of homes and structures destroyed. The true extent of the damage is still being calculated. In a much-needed call to action on Saturday night in Ventura, the governor called this our “new normal.” Yet in Tujunga, which I revisited on Monday night, the red flag warning, representing high fire danger, expired and the neighborhood is almost back to normal. The air feels clean by LA standards. GoFundMe pages have been set up for families left homeless. Local residents spent their weekends combing through ashes for keepsakes. As I drove away, I watched people hug in the streets and put up more of those bright, colorful signs. The locals’ gratitude for the angels—whether in yellow or in orange—was palpable.