The Camp Fire in full force.
Photo: Getty

The Camp Fire shined a national spotlight on California’s ever-worsening wildfire situation last month when it burned the entire town of Paradise to a crisp and claimed 85 lives. Now, it’s drawing increased attention to the state’s controversial conservation camp program, which sends people incarcerated for low-level offenses to battle blazes on the front lines.

No firefighters’ lives were lost fighting the Camp Fire, but five suffered serious burn injuries on November 8, their first day on the scene, according to a Green Sheet report the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection published last week. Among those injured were two incarcerated people, who suffered burns to the face and neck. All of the injured were treated and released from a burn treatment center the day of the incident, said Scott McLean, deputy chief of information at CalFire, to Earther via email.

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These were the only serious injuries the state reported; all others consisted of the “usual sprains, strains,” he said.

These incidents once again raise the question of how ethical and just this conservation camp program—which bills itself as voluntary—really is. California has 44 conservation camps sprinkled throughout the state that house nearly 4,300 incarcerated people. At these camps, prisoners earn a mere $2 a day with an additional dollar per hour when they’re fighting an active fire—which is higher than other prison jobs but dramatically lower than the $40,000 to $56,00 annual salary firefighters outside prison earn.

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This cheap labor saves the state some $100 million a year, per the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This fact alone has been reason enough to spark concerns around the program: Does it actually help those behind bars? Or is it simply a way for the state to save some money?

These incarcerated firefighters don’t get to return home to heal and rest. They return to a camp where correctional officers watch over them. Despite all the training and skills they develop, many can’t even find jobs in this field when they’re released because their criminal history may disqualify them.

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And firefighting is dangerous work. This was especially true the day the Camp Fire broke out November 8. As detailed in the state’s new report, the wild winds that helped make the fires so destructive changed direction that afternoon, causing the fire to move faster and toward a fire crew that was farther south than originally anticipated.

Barbed wire fence that approaching flames and smoke blocked from the view prevented two inmates from quickly escaping to safety. One was cornered by the fence, eventually finding an opening to escape the heat. Another got caught in the barbed wire because of a hand tool attached to his gear. He fell on his face, and his hair, beard, and mustache caught aflame.

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These men walked away with some serious burns, but others have died on the job—or even during training. In 2016, a 22-year-old woman died putting out a fire months before her sentence was up. In April, a 33-year-old man died on his first day during a training hike. That had nothing to do with fires, but it underscores how strenuous the work is. It’s no wonder fewer incarcerated people are signing up for the program.

The question remains: Should incarcerated people be fighting these fires at all?

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