this is a photo of my crew taken after our annual competition, I am in the back row fourth from the right. A few people have asked me to do an AMA this morning, and a few more did several months ago, so hopefully somebody shows up to ask something.

Comments: 231 • Responses: 54  • Date: 

mindzipper117 karma

ahh memories. sort of.

When I was 18 I was an idiot. i went to prison for, of all things, writing bad checks. not forgery, it was my account. for a grand total of 643.00 but since it was multiple checks I was prosecuted for a felony. Writing bad checks as part of a common scheme.. Was chosen to go to a special forest camp where we trained to, and later became firefighters for the forest. We were still inmates, we were just housed at a prison forest camp in swan lake montana (near kalispell)

The best of our claseses ended up being hot shot sawyers.

we risked our lives day in and day out on forest fires throughout montana.

for $2.35 per day, and we were considered lucky because regular inmates with jobs made $0.85 cents per day.

this was in 1986

and I will say, that whole mess probably saved my life. I haven't had as much as a speeding ticket since then

flavorraven52 karma

Awesome story, good to see other states doing this

Oldmanwiththeladder76 karma


flavorraven73 karma

Well there's not much to do to show appreciation that isn't breaking some sort of law but I know I appreciated every complement we got from the firefighters and you guys were almost always very cool with us on the fires.

and 2) work projects were 5 days a week and those we got $1 a day for, but firepay is $1/hr from the time you leave camp til the time you come back counting your down time so if you're out a week that's $168.

ddunau139 karma

What do you mean not breaking some sort of law

hatheaded14 karma

Not a lawyer, cop, guard, or ex-con, but I would surmise that you can't give an inmate-worker anything without it being prescreened and pre approved by the corrections staff. Kind of like you can't bring a file or knife into the prison, they're not allowed to have just any reading material, cell phones, etc.

flavorraven29 karma

Honestly the most likely thing a crew member would ask him for is a cigarette and obviously that's a nono albeit a petty one, but seriously I don't think he could even give one of us a candy bar without it being technically breaking a rule somewhere.

Ehliens13 karma


flavorraven9 karma

Sometimes the captain would put us on missions with other firefighters, be it CalFire, Hot Shots, or a city crew just out to help. Paid firefighter mans the hose putting out hot spots and we tag along destroying the hot brush along the way. If you want to talk to us, just ask our captain

vitaminsforyou56 karma

1) How did you go about becoming one?

2) What was the selection process like?

3) If you're OK with it, what got you into prison?

4) Most enjoyable/memorable moment?

5) Scariest fire you've dealt with.

Thanks, first AMA I'm actually interested in

flavorraven57 karma

1) Get more than 2 years but less than 5

2) There's a prison in Jamestown dedicated to training the inmate firefighters for all of southern CA, with 42 camps for the whole state of between 60 and 150 people each

3)DUI contributing to great bodily injury

4) Crossing a narrow dam with 30 other people in San Luis Obispo while a helicopter sucked water out of the reservoir providing insane wind to try to cross over.

5) Same fire as #4, called the Turkey Fire, had to chase a spotfire down a steep hill into the green in the middle of the night. Nothing too crazy though, lots of safety precautions most of the time

vitaminsforyou20 karma

Awesome. Another question, what do you do now? Can other FDs make exceptions for you although you've been convicted?

flavorraven54 karma

I'm in school to become an accountant and I do treetrimming/landscaping type work part time. If I were to move to another state, maybe I could join a city department but with a conviction my options here are limited to CalFire and the Hot Shots. If I hadn't settled down to start a family I'd probably have joined the Hot Shots but with the long weeks away from home it's not the most conducive to family life. My fire captain had a rough divorce and a rocky current relationship thanks to his work and it seems like that's not uncommon at all in the profession

martinezmasterchef44 karma

What special privileges did you get?

flavorraven84 karma

Much better food, Cable TV, freeweights, no barbed wire fences, quick mail

flavorraven61 karma

Also, pretty much everything illegal to have was much more easily available if you were so inclined. I smoked cigarettes, but that was the extent of my debauchery in there

onnoj81723 karma


can inmates not have freeweights? i mean, it makes sense, but you know...movies/shows/internet suggest otherwise.

flavorraven39 karma

Not in California anyway, they took them away sometime in the 90's I think

ludward2 karma

What training equipment was available (if there was any) for the other inmates?

flavorraven5 karma

All bodyweight exercises. dip bars, pullup bars, short bars to do tricep extensions, etc. Oh and a punching bag, but you had to go to an office and check that out and back in during yard. People made waterbags or rock bags for curls and kept them under their bunks but those were technically illegal.

mp029524 karma

What was preventing you from just running away?

flavorraven68 karma

The threat of 5 extra years

zephyer1922 karma

Tuolumne County volunteer here.
Thanks for the service and this AMA, and best of luck with your new life.

flavorraven10 karma

Thank you, isn't Jamestown in Tuolumne county? or at least Tuolumne adjacent?

BallZach777 karma

Jamestown is within the borders of Tuolumne county.

flavorraven11 karma

The 3 yards in the prison there are named after nearby counties. There's Calaveras, Mariposa, and Tuolumne

BumpiestMusic19 karma

I've been working for Cal Fire for just under 10 years, which seasons did you work? Maybe we were on a few of the bigger fires together.

In your opinion, which inmate crews throughout the state had the best reputations? Which ones had the worst?

flavorraven11 karma

I worked the last part of the 2011 season and all of 2012. Ironically the biggest fire I was on was the least work, it was the Stuart/Wilson fires in Anza Borrego with a combined 21,000 acres or something like that, but thanks to the state park designation or whatever it is, they wanted us cutting as little as possible so we mostly just watched it burn to the freeways and mopped up afterwards. Also the Turkey fire in SLO, and one in Parksfield I can't quite remember the name of but it was maybe 2,500 acres. My crew missed out on some of the bigger ones up north that year. Fenner Canyon had the reputation for getting the most hours, and really that kind of applies to all the LA area crews in general, though some of them had reputations for drug abuse, Julius Klein in particular if I remember correctly. I didn't know anything about the northern crews at all really since we didn't interact much, but I know Owen's Valley had a solid reputation on account of the weather they had to deal with. I was from Gabilan though in Soledad.

BumpiestMusic12 karma

Interesting! I've always had a good experience working with inmate crews. I work up in the Northern units and worked helitack for a few years so we would crew shuttle them into remote areas often. There's always one or two lazy guys but the other crew members would keep them in check pretty well. They always wanted to do a good job and were proud of the work they did, just like the other firefighters on the line.

How was working grade (as they call it up here, not sure about down there)? Did you have captains that got in and cut with you guys or were any of them fairly lazy? I've seen both so I'm curious about your experience.

flavorraven13 karma

honestly grade projects could be super easy or harder than the fires depending on the type of brush or the amount of poison oak involved. Captains usually didn't help too much if at all, but it was usually the captains who were at odds with the crew that would help the most, like if they wanted to talk shit they didn't want to be a hypocrite, which was kinda cool.

Hey I don't want to mention any real names but there was a helitack captain with the initials JC who had the most insane hardcore persona and was sorta notorious in our camp. We used to make fire-related Chuck Norris Jokes about him, like "Fire needs 4 things to survive: Fuel, Oxygen, Heat, and the absence of (JC)"

flavorraven6 karma

Sorry, Parksfield was the Turkey fire, and the one in San Luis Obispo was the Calf fire, my mistake.

djb8551115 karma

does your time count towards a firefighter profession when you get out? how do you feel about the prison system in CA?

flavorraven26 karma

Yes, but only in wildland firefighting (CalFire, hotshots etc), in fact one of the captains at my camp was a former inmate. The prison system in CA is pretty good considering the situation. The inmate population makes it very difficult with politics that enforce racial segregation in the general population, and the growing amount of "Special Needs Yards" makes things more difficult. SNY's used to be for sex offenders and snitches mostly but now it's largely gang dropouts and people who are tired of dealing with the racial politics of general population.

AVann67 karma

I'm totally naive here: could you expand more on the racial politics? Just curious.

flavorraven21 karma

Well people of different races don't go in cells together, unless they're "other" which means not Black, White, Hispanic, or Native American. Most "others" are Asians, but there's plenty of more obscure racial groups that fall into this, though I never saw a single Indian (dot Indian) during three years in the prison system. Then there's the breakdown where Whites and Southern Mexicans don't eat gamble or smoke with Blacks, others, and Northern Mexicans. Northern and Southern Mexicans can't be on the same yard together period or they will attack eachother nonstop. Jamestown and the whole firecamp system is a rare exception to the North/South Mexican war. There's also a group called the Bulldogs which is Mexicans from the Fresno area which used to be North, but broke off on their own and Fresno sort of serves as the dividing line between Nortenos and Surenos. From what I hear the whole "racial politics" thing is mostly a California thing, but it really complicates the housing situation when there's over 150,000 people in prison with self-imposed rules as to who they can and can't share a room or food with.

EDIT: For some reason, Native Americans have it so that they choose who they run with at each institution individually. Oddly most of them prefer white people.

zzzev2 karma

a guy was jogging downhill without paying attention, stepped in a squirrel hole and broke both his tibia and fibula in one motion.

Jesus, that sounds like some Kevin Ware type shit.

flavorraven7 karma

Well instead of a tall thin black guy he was a short fat white guy, and even though the whole thing was horrific, it's a LITTLE bit funny that his alias was Trips, yes before the incident.

detarvatten14 karma

Why did you "sign up"? Could you get the same benefits from a similar inmate position?

Also, thank you for what you do.

flavorraven15 karma

Well there's in-camp jobs where you get to live in the firecamp and rake in the benefits while doing support stuff like cooking, cleaning dorms, a couple cool jobs like small engine mechanic or diesel mechanic, and clerks who make more money than crew members a lot of the time, but it's hard to get those jobs. I just did it for the adventure and the relative freedom. as an 80%er my time didn't get reduced at all but most people there get reduced from 50% to 35% which can be a year or more off their sentence. Incentive enough, right?

detarvatten7 karma

incentive enough. sounds cool thanks for the answer! but what is an 80%er?

flavorraven9 karma

Someone with a previous strike that has to do 80% of their time. I took a strike as part of my DUI w/ great bodily injury charge

hambaza12 karma


flavorraven14 karma

Hahaha no, but anyone in prison gets free healthcare unless you've got a bunch of money on your books then I think they deduct some. And of course nobody gives full effort, but in the hiking and working condition they get you in doing this stuff even 50% is a hell of a lot of work. Sawyers and pullers work the hardest because operating a Husky 371 for hours on end is vicious work and pulling and throwing brush for hours on end can be equally draining especially since you're constantly on edge from your hands being so close to the bar of the chainsaw all the time. I was a puller for 6 months and retired to the pulaski (axe) chopping stumps.

And just for some added information, the only death I saw was a heart attack during the Physical Fitness Training you do before going to camp, a 51 year old man with only a couple months left on his sentence. The only serious injury I saw was on a voluntary saturday hike where a guy was jogging downhill without paying attention, stepped in a squirrel hole and broke both his tibia and fibula in one motion.

xkrysis11 karma

I worked for a SAR organization on California and occasionally worked with/around crews like yours. FWIW I've never seen a wildland crew that could clear an access through dense brush like you guys. In our case, it was usually when we needed access to a plane crash deep in the back country and needed to cut a real access from a nearby road once we had bushwhacked in.

Just came here you say you guys are a bunch of bad-ass hard workers. Much respect.

flavorraven9 karma

Thanks! You get the right guys on the chainsaws and it can go amazingly fast, but it's a hell of a team effort

bigbob44111 karma

Konocti 2nd saw, thanks for the ama!!!

flavorraven11 karma

Hey man, tons of respect for sawyers. More dedication than I was ever able to put into what we were getting paid, but I was a puller for a good chunk of a season and that shit was exhausting. You really had to have a trusting relationship with the sawyer to make a good team.

thewreck11 karma

Did you ever have trouble sleeping?

If so, what did you do?

-someone trying to fall asleep

flavorraven25 karma

Yeah I've always been pretty slow to get to sleep, took me about an hour most nights. Now I use melatonin gummies about an hour before bedtime and I get to sleep pretty quick, it's great

Crewsader668 karma

Well this is extremely interesting, glad to see that there are programs like this. This is a great way to "pay" your debt to society. Good luck on your future!

flavorraven3 karma

Thank you

deadlydimples6 karma

How often were you fighting fires during your time there?

flavorraven9 karma

500 hours in a little over a year. That's considered a pretty slow year, and the most I've ever heard of for an inmate crew was around 2500. Even as slow as it was, during the summer we were going out every couple days at least.

paper_or_plastic_3 karma

Paper or plastic?

flavorraven11 karma

always plastic. Unless you're Trader Joe's and you don't give me the option

mrplatypusthe42nd3 karma

Just wondering... have you ever, by any chance, been a surfing instructor? Because I knew of a surfing instructor in California who went to jail for a DUI contributing to great bodily injury who became an inmate firefighter.

flavorraven8 karma

Well oddly enough I was born in raised in San Diego but have never surfed once for whatever reason, so no

LucifersAngel31133 karma

Were you one of the firefighters that saved Villa Lobos?

What have you been doing sense you got out?

flavorraven9 karma

The name Villa Lobos sounds familiar, but I don't think I ever caught a fire there. Central California?

And since getting out a little over a year ago, I've gone back to school for the last 3 semesters (counting summer), held a few different jobs, got an awesome girlfriend and settled down. Also been sober since 2010 so that helps

direfire3 karma

How does one go about becoming an inmate fire fighter?

flavorraven6 karma

You get in a significant amount of trouble in California without being intentionally violent, though not so significant that you have more than 5 years to do, because that's the limit for firecamp

Gregorofthehillpeopl2 karma

Do you think an inmate "brush removal" program would better deal with wildfires?

flavorraven1 karma

Nah they do plenty of that too. We work 5 days a week 730-4 out in the city doing brush-clearing and other various projects for the county

Gregorofthehillpeopl1 karma

In the city, or out in the hills?

flavorraven3 karma

Both, sometimes dropping trees in a forest, sometimes cleaning up a gully by a school, sometimes cutting 60ft swaths of poison oak on a hill in a residential area, One time we even got recruited to paint a Marine Biology Lab in Monterrey and we got to hang down at the bluffs watching the whales feed off the coast during lunch. Any land that is county or city owned is a possible work project. They pay $200/day to the camps for 15 dudes to work 8 hours, so they take whatever they can get.

Gregorofthehillpeopl1 karma

How much do they put in your accounts?

flavorraven2 karma

For the work projects it's about $1/day

Big_Rick20x2 karma

Have you stayed friends with any of your fellow inmates that fought fires with you and see them regularly, or are they still imprisoned?

flavorraven3 karma

I don't see any of them in person but I'm facebook friends with a few. I check the California Inmate Locator on occasion to see who got themselves locked up again and who's still out here, the recidivism being what it is

CheeseburgerIceCream2 karma

Does your training carry over if you want to become a firefighter for a city/town/county? Do you plan on becoming a firefighter outside of prison?

flavorraven5 karma

Well at least here in California you can't become a city firefighter with a record, but if I were looking to get into CalFire or join a Hot Shot crew for wildland firefighting, the experience definitely carries over because it's roughly the same job plus driving and coordinating on the radios

gnarledout2 karma

Hi thanks for doing this AMA. Were you married prior to your conviction? If so, how did your wife handle your arrest? Was there a lot of support? What did you tell the kids (if you have any)?

flavorraven7 karma

Nah I was single, been in a relationship since about a month after I got out and lovin it

monkeyseconds2 karma

Do you know Ray, he did the same thing?

flavorraven2 karma

Hmm, Alias?

thisoneorthatone2 karma

Aw man you know Ray. He lives over by the store, with the tree.

flavorraven6 karma

Oh shit I did know a couple RayRays now that I think about it. I wonder if Ray is short for that.

greatwhiteminnow2 karma

I know I'm late late for this but does the name Kevin Langeloh ring a bell? He's the heavy equipment man in Rainbow.

flavorraven12 karma

Rainbow is a ladies camp. I don't mean that as a dis, I mean it's a female firecamp and those ladies wield chainsaws like you would not friggin believe

bryanvickersband2 karma

Ever met a John Gaston? He's been on a few inmate crews in California.

flavorraven2 karma

Doesn't ring a bell sorry. 9/10 people in prison go by nicknames anyway.

thisoneorthatone2 karma

Now that you are not eating spread anymore whats your favorite sandwich?

flavorraven3 karma

pastrami and sharp cheddar, made in the comfort of my own kitchen

Name2ShortNowItsLong2 karma

CO here. Not in cali, so I'm interested in how the system differs

  1. How long were you in prison before you were sent to the camp

  2. How much of a gang problem did prison have vs the camps

  3. Tell me everywhere you hide the contraband. You guys are creative

  4. How easy is it to say, while your in prison, that you wont commit the crime again, vs when you get back into society when it's easy to fall back into habits? What in prison helped you stray away from old habits?

  5. What could CO's do better?

flavorraven1 karma

  1. I spent a year in Jamestown before going to camp, but that was unusually long, most people only have to wait 3-5 months

  2. In California, as I'm sure in a lot of places, gang beef gets squashed on the inside. The only exception here in CA is the Sureno/Norteno/Bulldogs, but at least in my camp that one wasn't a problem either. We had a norteno and a sureno bunking together for about a week or so and working on the same crew for a long time.

  3. Haha can't answer that one bud :) but I will tell you when a crew pisses off their captain enough to have the CO's raid the bus the CO's usually find at least 5 cell phones in each raid, and the crews are only 15 men each

  4. The main cause of recidivism goes hand in hand with drugs and alcohol. If I were to keep drinking, eventually I'd get another DUI. If a guy keeps doing meth, he'll eventually steal something from somebody. AA/NA meetings are a great idea in prison but in practice they can be pretty flawed, with people only going to meet up with people from other yards and make a deal or pass a kite. Exercise and my guitar kept me on the right path in there.

  5. Don't sweat the small stuff and if you do, don't be petty about it. Most of the CO's I dealt with were pretty good people. Basic human dignity goes a long way

CulturedNinja2 karma

ever had sex in jail?

flavorraven3 karma

No, but in the more rural camps there's a thing called "Bush visits" where you arrange a meeting spot w/ a chick outside the camp grounds on your cellphone and sneak off in between walkthroughs to bang in the car. I don't know how common those actually are but everybody talks about them. My camp was right next to a freeway though, so the only people getting laid were the married folk in the conjugal trailers

ErectJellyfish1 karma

Not sure if this was already asked, but what were you convicted of?

flavorraven13 karma

2nd DUI, first one having been a DUI contributing to great bodily injury. In short, I'm an alcoholic and after getting out from my first term at 21 having hurt someone pretty badly I wasn't ready to accept that I couldn't drink ever again. 3 years later I was drinking every day and got pulled over for a broken taillight getting cigarettes while being leftover drunk after a jager-induced nap. I've been sober since June 2010 and much prefer life this way. I also do the AA thing and have made my amends to the person I hurt in my first DUI.

STUGIO1 karma

Were you a fireman before prison?

Did yall have any ems responsibilities?

Was there something akin to a station where you could be near your gear or did you have to keep your ppe in your cell with you?

flavorraven2 karma

1) nope

2) no but I did get to gurney a fellow inmate off a mountain once

3) No cells, we had 30-man dorms in a camp. Nomex was kept in our lockers but the rest of our equipment was on our buses at camp

bleedgreenandwhite121 karma

Thanks for your hard work. As someone worked on a trail crew I hear it can just as hard (a lot of similar work cutting brush, swamping, digging trail/line) but the days can be much longer.

Quick question, What did you think about all the safety precautions? I am currently considering apply for a few wildland firefighter positions for this upcoming summer.

flavorraven2 karma

Check out the "10's and 18's" of firefighting

FridayNiteGoatParade1 karma

Would you say the fire camp program has helped you (or other inmates in on things more hardcore than DUI) out or made your chances of recidivism lower? Or is the choice to turn things around made beforehand?

flavorraven3 karma

Well I think it's something most people have decided for themselves either before or early on in their term, but I think it gives those that want to take their second chance at life a solid running start. Whether you want to or not, you get a strong work ethic that stays with you.

lizzylizard1 karma

What camp were you in, if you don't mind sharing? Did it happen to be in Boulevard?

flavorraven2 karma

Gabilan in Soledad. The camp you're talking about is McCain Valley though and I've heard some crazy stories about that camp. Stuff about border-crossing drug mules trading huge amounts of heroin for food and water, stuff about a married local woman giving the whole camp HIV. Urban legends I'm sure but for whatever reason that was the only camp I ever heard such wild shit about. As a native San Diegan it would have been much closer to home, but I was actually hoping to get to La Cima in Julian.

SacredAfro1 karma


flavorraven3 karma

They said there's about 1200 men fighting that fire, I'd guess at least a few hundred are inmates. LA county especially has a lot of camps in the area, and those are the most active and experienced camps in Southern California by a long shot.

nerdlingersbrabomb1 karma

Did you train at High Desert?

flavorraven1 karma


kyrgyzygryk1 karma

Good job fire fighter! As a RADO, I always appreciated your work.

flavorraven1 karma

Forgive me, but what does RADO stand for?

honored_angel1 karma

Just wanted to say thank you for the work you did. An inmate crew came to help out with a large fire where I lived. Really nice bunch of guys. Mom bought Gatorade and waters for them. Only good memory from that situation (trapped on our property while the fire raged).

What're your plans now? Any good firefighting stories?

flavorraven2 karma

My favorite one to tell isn't even on a fire we were fighting it was a control burn. We'd cut the fireline ahead of time and they were lighting this hill on fire as part of a prescribed burn and our job was just to watch it and make sure it didn't cross the line, lighting the right side on our way down the hill. Well my captain's got these sparker grenades where you light a fuse, wait 10 seconds, and throw them as far as you can into the brush. So he's letting a couple of the people he likes on the crew throw the grenades and he offers one to me. So I light the fuse, wait 10 seconds and throw it a good hundred feet or so into the brush. Nothing happens, nothing happens, then the little fireworks inside of it that are held in place by clay shake free of the clay and come flying back at us, miss the open window of a firetruck by about a foot and land on the other side of the fireline shooting sparks into the brush. All I could think to say was "Hey Cap, I think we've got a spotfire"

Green_Three1 karma

Has anyone ever gone "missing" in the field? What sort of security measures are taken to ensure you come back from fighting a wildfire?

flavorraven2 karma

Never personally heard of one, though somebody from a regular prison's firecrew stole a bus to escape a couple years ago. Nobody really wants to escape, we have relatively little time to do (nobody with more than 5 years left can go to firecamp) and they make camp life pretty comfortable. Most dudes have cell phones stashed on the bus