The Convicts Who Save California

Yosemite Forest Fire
Yosemite Forest Fire (Photo credit: LukeJNovak)

“Soul on Fire”
James Pogue

VICE
November 10, 2013

I grew up enamored with the idea of being a firefighter, inspired by the January 1972 premiere of NBC’s Emergency! I was pretty open about my ambitions for a few years, even attempting to organize my own grade-school version of a volunteer fire department. My parents fretted about my obsession, though, and the fact that it took away from my concentration at school. Worse, perhaps, was that my interest became decidely uncool before I was ten, and given my persistent geeky social awkwardness I needed as few factors as possible working against me. I remained an avid fire buff throughout my teens, but I kept it under wraps.

Then, at seventeen, my firefighter fantasies seemed poised to come true. Working for the summer of 1982 on the rural west end of Catalina Island, I was sitting down for lunch on July 3rd when the fire siren wailed. Looking up to see a growing pall of smoke from the dry hillsides next to Catalina Harbor a scant two miles away. I rushed back to work only to be hurriedly herded with a handful of other locals into the back of the sheriff deputy’s Bronco, then deposited alone, clueless and tool-less minutes later along a road between the fire and the tiny community at the Isthmus.

At that moment, alone on a hillside, a hundred yards from the next nearest person, without a shovel, protective gear,  leadership, or training, with a wind-blown fire a mile away and moving in my direction, I engaged in the kind of struggle experienced only by teenaged boys. Hero Complex urged me to “hold the line” against the fire, using my shirt to fight it if I had to. Hero Complex was quickly overruled, however, by the power-team of Common Sense and Fear: “what can I do by myself with no tools?” asked Common Sense. “Let’s get the f*** out of here before we burn and die,” urged Fear.

Down the hill I went, alone as I came up, hating myself every step of the way, even after I saw that the fire chief had decided to set up a perimeter around the structures in the direct path of the fire, leaving to burn the brush I was sent to defend. I spent the rest of the night as spectator and support, never quite forgiving myself for not making the stand, but knowing (hoping?) that somehow I had done the right thing.

***

Apart from earthquakes, there are probably few things that scare the hell out of your average Californian more than a wildfire. From afar, they are horrifying in an intellectual kind of way. Put yourself in the path of an advancing wall of uncontrolled flame, though, and suddenly something inside your lizard brain starts squeezing your adrenal glands until every cell in your body tries to flee of its own accord.

And well it should. Fighting fires of any kind is not for wannabees. The chemical nexus of heat, fuel, and oxygen is more than just a simple reaction. The best description I have ever heard was Robert DeNiro‘s line as fire marshal Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale in Ron Howard’s Backdraft.

“It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to. Some guys on this job, the fire owns them, makes ’em fight it on it’s level, but the only way to truly kill it is to love it a little.”

Your average professional firefighter has the equivalent of a university education on the science of fire suppression. The National Fire Protection Association suggests a minimum of 110 hours, or three weeks, of intensive training before a physically-fit volunteer firefighter is allowed to join a department, and most departments lay heavy demands for continued on-the-job training for minimum competence.

Yet every year, the roll-call of firefighters killed in the line of duty grows. Fire, that fickle witch, claims for her own even the best trained and most experienced. And the most wicked, unpredictable, terrifying kind of fire is the wildland conflagration, when brush, bush, and entire forests play host to howling walls of burning terror.

***

Despite the danger, every fire season, over four thousand felons voluntarily place their bodies between those walls of flame and our homes in the state of California. Somehow these convicted felons overcome whatever character flaws they possess and step into some of the most grueling and dangerous work in America.

It is a great untold story of heroism in the Golden West, and James Pogue set out with camping gear, notebooks, and tape recorder in his pickup truck to learn more about California’s convict conservationists. What he describes is at once heartening and unsettling. Most of the convicts come from urban backgrounds, yet they live for weeks, even months, in the rough conditions of a tent camp, away from anything resembling modern conveniences. It’s a hard life: twelve- and even twenty-hour days spent hiking in rough back-country with heavy tools and wearing heavy kit, engaged in the backbreaking and fraught work of cutting fire breaks and setting backfires just ahead of the firestorm.

A sleeping bag and physically draining days clearly beat the scant attractions of life on a cell block in California’s overfull prisons. Having an extra day taken off one’s sentence for each day served on a crew doesn’t hurt, either. The price for release from the perdition of concrete, barbed wire, and brutal social Darwinism is a life facing the embers and flames of California wildfires. Better flaming Hell than seething perdition, it would seem. And on that bitter choice balances the safety of an entire state built on what firefighters call the “wildland interface.” Even a law-and-order conservative with an ounce or two of compassion is troubled by the fact that our lifestyles are ensured in part through the risks taken by men we have all but cast off.

***

Pogue’s story doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the devil, nor does he imply that these men have anyone but themselves to blame for their predicament. Indeed, given a full-to-bursting penal system that seems bent on cultivating recidivists, a life eating smoke and cutting fire breaks seems to be the closest thing California prisons offers to genuine rehabilitation.

But after reading the story, you will never look at a forest, a prison, a home on a hillside, or a California Department of Forestry truck the same way ever again.

And if you have ever met the orange-yellow monster of a wildfire face-to-face, with your life and your loved ones at your back, you might even be driven to whisper a quiet thanks to a weary band of convicts with shovels and hard-hats.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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