There was an article on the front page yesterday about California's inmate firefighting program, and there seemed to be a lot of questions about it, so if anyone wants to know what it's like I'm here to answer any questions you may have.

I am fourth from the right in the top row.

Comments: 235 • Responses: 60  • Date: 

Thatguywayoverthere83 karma

Given the experience you gain, can you become a firefighter once your sentence is complete?

flavorraven96 karma

Yes, but only in wild land firefighting seasonally such as the U.S. forestry service's Hot Shots program, or CalFire through the state, though CalFire has more applicants for fewer spots.

Thatguywayoverthere49 karma

I can understand why, the hot shots program is pretty dangerous, being from California I hear stories of guys parachuting in and having the soles of their boots melt off.

flavorraven93 karma

Smoke jumpers are like the Navy Seals of the firefighting world

Soccadude12316 karma

So I guess us structural firefighters are like black ops.

flavorraven39 karma

Idk, what's the branch that's well paid and gets all the recognition? I'm just kidding, you guys are amazing and I wouldn't begin to know how to do what you do.

Gaythrowaway182328 karma

I hate to be the bad guy, but that isn't true. In California it is difficult to secure a wildland or structure firefighting position. Being incarcerated is not advantageous. Unfortunately, to better prove I'm not trying to hate on what you've done, neither is serving in the military as a DC.

You definitely won't make hot shot position without some FEDERAL experience.. And at least a few seasons at that. It's a very coveted and respected position.

The state and county hand crew positions are difficult to get, federal is even harder.

I feel OP is not posting based off his experience outside of what he was told while he was in prison.

Downvote this all you want, but I am a seasoned firefighter in California and while I encourage anyone interested in joining, please do so with the correct information.

Be safe out there brothers.

flavorraven49 karma

I don't think it's easy, and usually a couple seasons of volunteer firefighting are necessary to get in with CalFire but there was a captain at my camp that used to be an inmate, so I know it can be done.

Rprob58 karma

What were you incarcerated for?

flavorraven233 karma

DUI contributing to great bodily injury. Haven't drank or done any drugs since serving my time and I've now been sober for over 4 years.

ImFriendsWithThatGuy29 karma

That's awesome man! Congratulations! I celebrate 3 years sober in 2 weeks. I'm pretty excited I made it this far.

flavorraven23 karma

Congrats to you too! I never thought it could be this easy.

emporras1 karma

Great job, man. Its unfortunate that it took an accident and jail time to get you to change. Has your perspective on drug usage changed? Do you think drugs should be legalized?

flavorraven2 karma

I mean all my friends still smoke weed, and I don't see why that shouldn't be legal. The other stuff though, not so much. Known too many tweakers and heroin addicts through the prison system to think that's a good idea.

RAND061154 karma

  1. What type of incentives do you get for participating in this program?

  2. Is there some sort of process which decides which inmates get to participate and those who don't?

  3. How were you viewed by professional firefighters who I assume you also worked alongside?

flavorraven111 karma

  1. Better food, more relative freedom (as in the camps themselves didn't have barbed wire fences and we got to do work projects out in the community), better pay, and reduced sentences for those that are eligible to have their sentence reduced (I was not).

  2. Nonviolent felons (also no sex offenders or arsonists) with less than five years left on their sentence are all eligible. Counsellors decide the vetting process from there if there are any discrepancies.

  3. I never met a professional firefighter that wasn't at least respectful to us (some crew captains were dicks but prisoners are also notoriously bad with authority figures so it's whatever) and most were legitimately friendly.

tyronio54 karma

As a Cal Fire Firefighter I work with crews day in and day out and they are the backbone of this organization. Having said that is there something I can do or say that will make their jobs easier or at least give them a chuckle?

flavorraven80 karma

Just keep treating them like people, that's about all it takes for most of us.

Star90s31 karma

Have you or any of your crew suffered snake bites while fighting fires? Did you continue to be a fire fighter after you completed your sentence?

flavorraven52 karma

No snake bites, but I did see several rattlers during my service. One time a king snake came out from under a bush we were cutting, someone relocated him to the other side of a trail and he spooked a nearby rattler who scared the hell out of everyone. I initially planned to join the hot shots program when I got out but I settled down to start a family instead and seasonal firefighting isn't conducive to family life with the long periods away from home and the seasonal unemployment.

douhaz27 karma

As someone who is adamantly against the current system in place and the types of sentences that are handed down I'm genuinely curious. Is there something other than prison that would have "worked" to "reform you" and stop you from ever driving drunk again or is prison what it took?

flavorraven152 karma

I mean I probably would have made it into recovery sooner or later without prison, but honestly DUI drivers that hurt people should go to prison and I deserved the time I got.

xkrysis25 karma

I was a part of a California search and rescue team for about 10 years. I participated is most major fires in our area helping with evacuations, etc. the "con crews" as they were referred to were always working their asses off when I saw them. Outside of fires, several times when we had major incidents way off of trails/roads they would have one come in and literally clear a swath through super harsh terrain and brush to support access. Usually it was a plane or glider crash. I would identify the con crews by the bars over the vehicle windows. For what it's worth, you guys were pretty badass every time I had the pleasure. Thanks for all the times you helped us out.

I was based out of Santa Barbara, and our county had a pretty big chunk of Los Padres National Forest. Were you ever in those parts and if so when/for what?

flavorraven19 karma

I was in a central California camp but the LA county camps worked harder than anyone. I got 500 fire hours in a year while the guys in Fenner Canyon got 1500 or more, and it's probably those crews that helped you with the search and rescue stuff, as crews only travel the long distances for the big 1000+ acre fires most of the time. Man that search and rescue stuff sounds like some rewarding work though.

gnarcaster12 karma

Former California wildland firefighter on a hand crew. I remember seeing a few crews around and they all seemed pretty happy to be out in the forest and doing worthwhile work. I heard the pay was only $1-2 an hour, is that accurate? Did you ever feel like you guys got taken advantage of as far as roles on a fire being felons?

flavorraven31 karma

Yeah the article from yesterday said it was 2 an hour but it was $1/hr when I was there in 2012. It's hard to feel taken advantage of when the highest paying jobs in prison elsewhere are for maybe $3 a day.

EDIT: Also, the 24 hours on 24 hours off meant we were also getting paid a dollar an hour to sleep it off at base camp every other day.

omnibus3412 karma

What's your inmate security level? How were you chosen for the firefighter job?

flavorraven18 karma

Level 1 or 2 are camp eligible. Mine was level 1

TheElusiveGnome11 karma

Could you please elaborate on what level 1 entails?

flavorraven26 karma

There's a point system in the CA prisons that's based on a number of factors including the length of your sentence, whether your crime was violent or non-violent, the amount of times you have been to prison before, and your age (young people start out with more points). Level 1 is 0-18 points, 2 is 19-35, 3 is 36-59, and 4 is 60+.

I knew a guy that went from level 2 to level 4 in a matter of months just by failing random drug tests over and over again.

sexualtyrranasaurus5 karma

What institution raised that guys security threat level from II to IV over failed drug tests? That's like going from SCC to SQ.

flavorraven12 karma

Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, the training prison for camps. He had to be transferred to a different prison afterwards and before the move he went into protective custody. To be fair, he was a closeted gay skinhead so he had a pretty valid reason to want protective custody (I was teaching him to play guitar and he told me a pretty thorough account of his life story while he was high on meth one day).

sexualtyrranasaurus6 karma

Haha! I was right when I said SCC! I work at CDCR HQ, so it's not a great of a guess as it sounds.

flavorraven4 karma

Yeah I kinda thought that's what you meant. What's SQ though? He was supposed to go to Salinas Valley, and I think he eventually did, just in the SNY yard instead of the regular one.

KKajun5 karma

San Quentin?

flavorraven7 karma

I probably should have guessed that

3vyn11 karma

What is your favorite memory from being an inmate firefighter?

flavorraven45 karma

The best memories were not from the fires themselves but the work projects. I worked at Pfeiffer State Park in Big Sur falling hazard trees for a couple months and there was a stream there I would go and sit next to for lunch, and a little sand bar that went right out in the middle of the stream where I could feel like I was sitting in it without getting wet. Stuff like that was always really neat.

aichudechu6 karma

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the most gorgeous places I've ever seen - it's like the image of paradise. Sounds like an amazing work assignment!

flavorraven9 karma

It was Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park 11 miles north of JPB, but I looked up JPB and holy shit that is beautiful. I just got back from a little summer camping vacation in Van Damme State Park up by Fort Bragg. The beaches up north are so different from the sandy touristy beaches I'm used to in SD

_The_Henge_10 karma

Thanks for doing this. It's fascinating, and your writing style is frank and compelling.

What other work options are available to inmates? Is the firefighter program the most coveted/competitive? Was there ever an issue ( in your experience) with attempted escapes?

Cheers and good luck with your sobriety.

flavorraven18 karma

There is apparently a water sanitation training program that, while not terribly exciting, gives out the certifications needed for a solid sanitation job after parole.

Firefighting in prison isn't exactly hard to get into for people that are eligible and tell their counsellor at reception it's what they want to do. Passing the physical fitness training isn't difficult if you are young and in reasonable shape, but there was a 51 year old man that died of a heart attack during PFT while I was there in Jamestown on a 100+ degree day. This led to them not doing PFT in 100 degree weather anymore.

There were no escapes that I heard about with campers, though somebody in the in-prison firehouse at Donovan in San Diego stole a fire truck for an escape in 2011, but I don't think he made it very far.

_The_Henge_10 karma

Wow. Not the most inconspicuous getaway vehicle...

flavorraven7 karma

He ditched it pretty early in the escape and made it to a trolley station in Lemon Grove before being detained.

daveed20019 karma

Do you feel fighting fires as a way to repay your "debt to society"?

flavorraven38 karma

It's hard to equivocate those things but some people view it that way. I just think being of service to others helps me at least as much as it helps anyone else. Also hard manual labor and sleeping on cold ashy mountains helps put into perspective the difficulties I might face elsewhere in life

kconnors9 karma

How often do inmates find contraband when out in the open fighting fires?

flavorraven27 karma

Well generally contraband in fire camp isn't stuff you just find. Generally, contraband in fire camp involves a person you know outside of prison leaving a bag at a pre-planned specified location you are going to be working (on a community work project, not a fire), and you take the bag and hide it on the bus until you can securely transport it into the camp through various channels. For instance, putting it in a trash bag that has newspaper around the stuff you're bringing in to make it look more legitimately like a trash bag, throwing it next to the camp's dumpster when it's time to take out the actual trash from the bus, and having a member of the kitchen crew back at camp bring it into a secure location in the kitchen to later be distributed back to you at your dorm for a percentage of what you brought in.

If one were so inclined.

Also, one time we found a $120 pair of sunglasses on the ground at the Laguna Seca raceway while raking gravel.

kconnors9 karma

Thanks - that's interesting. I often wondered if prison road crews cleaning up sides of highways find interesting stuff tossed out of car windows.

flavorraven9 karma

cigarette butts with more than a quarter left are probably getting re-rolled.

kconnors5 karma

I knew it

flavorraven11 karma

Although, the crews picking up things on the side of the highway are generally not fire crews, but work crews from level one yards on the regular prisons. Our work projects tended to be a little more interesting than that. Dropping trees, building rock walls, cutting fire breaks, trimming up off-road trails, stuff like that.

The ones on the side of the highway picking up cigarette butts have to stuff them in their butt to get them back to prison. We just brought them in with our lunchbox or in our socks or something totally amateur like that.

jabandie7 karma

Did the program help in rehabilitation? Would you pick the same program again or are there better programs to help getting back to society?

flavorraven12 karma

Well for rehabilitation I just went to the AA meetings in camp, which were very small. It was the H&R guy from the AA group in the area, me and one to five other inmates depending on who felt like showing up. There are AA meetings in every prison in the country as far as I know, but in the smaller meetings there is certainly more focus on the individual and more time to read through the AA book.

In regards to fire camp itself as a program of rehabilitation, I think the whole deal there is just the idea of being of service to others. I think that sort of thing goes a long way in your personal outlook if you let it.

ElNutimo6 karma

Have you guys ever done those firefighter calenders to raise funds?

flavorraven18 karma

No but I'm pretty sure contraband cell phones sometimes get used for dick pics if that counts?

ElNutimo3 karma

Contraband cellphones?

You mean you're not allowed to bring cellphones into the station? Or is it just camera phones?

flavorraven8 karma

Well as an inmate you're not supposed to have a cell phone at all, though they are pretty common.

cards_dot_dll6 karma


flavorraven48 karma

Actually more than half the white guys you see are actually Hispanic. The ratios seem pretty comparable to the regular prison population, and if you're wondering why the prison population has a much larger percentage of minorities a sociology class should be able to answer that - it's mostly just the cycle of poverty.

FireFightersFTW6 karma

Any chance you could stop by /r/firefighting?

flavorraven6 karma

I would love to but I'm not sure what I'd say. Perhaps I could just lurk awhile?

natr995 karma

Have you ever been in a really bad fire or have an accident happen to you or one of your fellow firefighters? And as a resident of California, thank you, these fires are getting intense.

flavorraven9 karma

The only remotely scary thing that happened was a small spotfire down a steep hill in the middle of the night. Me and a couple other guys had to hike/tumble down to where it was and put it out before it took off up the hill, but it realistically wasn't that bad. People come down with heat stroke every now and then. A friend of mine named Gator was pretty prone to getting sick from the heat. He used to run a chainsaw until he puked on like 3 fires in a row so he got bumped back to pulaski.

Patches673 karma

Hi flavorraven. I was trained for forest fire fighting but never deployed. (Slow summer where I lived.)

Have you ever encountered any dangerous wildlife while fighting fires?

flavorraven8 karma

Ooh that's a good one. There are some wild hogs in central California's mountains that are fucking scary. We were doing mop up on a fire when one of the guys on my crew saw a momma and a young hog under an oak tree and screamed at the top of his lungs in a really high voice. They took off the other direction and the speed at which they could run up a steep hill was amazing. On another part of the mountain that day another crew from my camp encountered another one under another oak tree and the guy who saw it also screamed really loud but this one ran right at him so he sidestepped it and slapped at it with his shovel at the same time and the pig kept on going. These wild hogs are like 400-600 lbs a piece full grown.

Patches674 karma

You're kinda lucky. I was smack in the middle of black bear country and we hardly ever saw anything. The most interesting thing we saw was a family of beaver who's home got illegally dynamited by a farmer. It was located way deep in provincial park land nowhere near private property. We cut down some trees to help the beavers fill in the gap and as soon as we laid down the trees the beavers hopped right on and got to work fixing their dam.

flavorraven4 karma

There are some camps that have family of deer hanging out regularly because the deer know the campers will feed them. My camp was right next to the 101 but some are very rural.

TakeOffYourMask3 karma

Is it true that you have to fight fire with fire?

flavorraven16 karma

Well I know you're probably joking, but "back burning" is when you set a fire on one side of a cut fire line to get the material closest to the line burnt off without the momentum of the main fire to carry it across the line.

_Laughing_Man3 karma

A friend of mine was in the program as well. What was your job within the crew?

flavorraven6 karma

Puller for the first 6 months, then 1st Pulaski after that.

_Laughing_Man5 karma

Nice, my friend worked Pulaski and cutter I think. (not sure about this one lol, they cut line?)

flavorraven12 karma

Sawyer maybe?

In order of appearance, each crew has 2 Sawyers that run the chainsaws, 2 Pullers that pull the brush out of the way and throw it off into the surrounding area, 4-5 Pulaskis that chop out the stumps and yank out the midsize root structures, 4-5 McLeods that scrape the remainder of the vegetation down to bare dirt, a Dragspoon that takes an angled shovel and makes everything look nice afterwards, and a Swamper that relays radio instructions from the Captain and carries around all sorts of extra supplies.

teamste12222 karma

Did you list these in order of desirability?

flavorraven2 karma

No, in order of how the line gets cut. Saws go in first to take out the thick brush, pullers clear it out, etc. Desirability depends on how hard you want to work.

Eric-J1 karma

This sounds like a Quiddich team.

flavorraven1 karma

A little, yeah.

bozobozo2 karma

What is your favorite dinosaur?

Also, I've recently read of the prison firefighter program compared to slave labor. What is your opinion about this?

flavorraven13 karma

Pachycephalosaurus, and it's more like indentured servitude

citrus_based_arson2 karma

What stopped people from just running for it when the "guards" were looking the other way?

Were you treated better than other prisoners?

flavorraven9 karma

5 years extra time and the statistics that show escaped prisoners almost never stay escaped.

And hell yeah we were. I mean the correctional officers treated us about the same as any other place, but the bonuses inherent in being at camp were phenomenal. Food, weights, cheap smokes, you name it.

itstexas2 karma

So why fire fighting? I've never heard of a fire fighting program for inmates. How has it changed you? What were you incarcerated for, if you don't mind me asking? Before you were incarcerated, did you want to be a fire fighter, or did you hear about the program and felt like you'd be a good fit?

flavorraven13 karma

I think lots of states have those programs, at least in the western states. I had never really wanted to be a firefighter but really from the moment you get in county jail, people are talking about how great it is or how great they've heard it is, so unless you're lazy or cowardly it is impossible to not want to go to fire camp if possible.

Hermiesterberger2 karma

What kind and how much food was made available to you when at camp?

flavorraven8 karma

Well regular in camp meals were decent. Not great but way better than the slop you get in a regular prison, but the meals they served when fighting a fire were fantastic. Steak, ribs, waffles, huge 5 lb bags full of snacks to eat during the actual firefighting, flavored creamer to put in the coffee. I've had the ability to choose my own food for a couple of years since getting out but I still salivate at the idea of a fire meal.

telephonybone2 karma

Do you think the prison labor system is exploitative?

flavorraven25 karma

Well it doesn't even pay for itself, so if it is exploitative, it's not very good at it. It's a way to help pay for the housing and feeding of inmates and assist a state with a very serious fire problem, and in the process I think it does a better job of rehabilitating people than the rest of the prison system (55% recidivism rate for camps compared to 70% in the rest of the system)

cwitt122 karma

Which prison were you at? I interned at RJD (San Diego) back in 2011 and spent a day with the inmate firefighters. They save me from an imaginary fire :) I ran into one of them downtown a year later and it was awesome to see him out and doing well!

flavorraven7 karma

I did my reception at Donovan (RJD) as I'm from San Diego county, but the guys you met were probably from the prison's fire house. Every prison's got a fire house that is supposed to defend the prison itself but there is also a system of 42 camps throughout the state that team up with CalFire on pretty much every wild land fire that happens in California. Mine was in Soledad, near Monterrey

Meatwagons1 karma

Gabilan eh?

flavorraven1 karma

Yes sir

tomisthetrain2 karma

Hey, I really respect you and the other inmates who're trying to turn your lives around, and do you enjoy being in the program, or is it more of a "I'm in it for the benefits" thing? Regardless of your answer, thanks for your services.

flavorraven4 karma

Well I got out nearly 3 years ago, but I enjoyed it while I was there. I think the benefits of camp make it hard to say you're not "in it for the benefits" and especially for the guys whose sentences are reduced by being in fire camp, how could you not mostly be in it for your freedom? But I really did enjoy fighting fire to some degree. Towards the end of my sentence I didn't like it as much because time goes by slower when you're swinging an axe all day and sleeping in the dirt, but it was an experience I will always remember with a weird fondness

coldtrance2 karma

I know this is really late to the thread, but did you ever work with the San Diego zoo or their other name sakes to clear brush from their properties or help with their research programs? I worked for them for almost 10 years and met many of you folks. They were all an amazing help, especially when doing research in Temecula to save kangaroo rats.

flavorraven3 karma

Oh cool! No, that was probably either the dudes of La Cima in Julian or McCain Valley down by the border, or the ladies of Rainbow or Puerta La Cruz. I always wanted to get down to the San Diego camps because that's where everyone I know lives but the good-guy transfer system they were supposed to have was really lagged with bureaucratic nonsense, and I didn't have that much time to do. That would have been a really fun project though. I have a SD Zoo pass now if that counts for anything.

coldtrance1 karma

Hey I'm happy for any members new or old! All the proceeds go to conservation efforts and the care of the animals. Thank you for being a member!! I'm at the Albuquerque zoo now but thank you so much for supporting a company I love very much!

flavorraven5 karma

I've got kids now. I can't afford not to have a zoo pass.

penguinlover781 karma

What made you want to join the program? And congrats for your accomplishments!:)

flavorraven2 karma

The benefits and the glory.

aliceinondering1 karma

Did you ever work with the California Conservation Corps? If so what was the policy in regards to interactions with women who were in the CCC? I was in the CCC in the eighties and we were told not to speak to look at or have I contact of any shorts with the inmates.

flavorraven1 karma

Yes, they worked as a sort of support staff for one of the fires I fought in Anza Borrego. There were female inmates fighting that fire as well and they got more attention than the CCC women.

aliceinondering1 karma

This was 30 years ago for me so things have changed and there's a lot more women in traditional mens jobs. We were told absolutely no contact no nothing or we would have a federal offense against us. I still ended up getting a letter from an inmate asking me if I was the one with the blue eyes and a blue bandana on my head that said it was a nice day. He said if its not you could you please make sure I get the right one. The letter was about how it just felt like the right thing and I've never felt that way about somebody and blah blah blah I didn't laugh I understood that he was probably just a little horny. I gave it to my supervisor so I wouldn't get in trouble good times! I went on to become the second female Glazer in Los Angeles County that's class incase you don't know ...we put glass in a bunch of high rises. Then I went to the medical field and became a therapist it goes on from there but anyway I have stories for my future grandchildren. Thanks for answering me and best of luck to you :-)

flavorraven1 karma

Yeah I feel like nowadays that letter wouldn't have made it out in the first place. The guards read through the mail pretty thoroughly from what I understand. Our fire captain always said when it comes to seeing women while you work, treat it like staring at the sun: you can glance, just don't stare.

TBBT-Joel1 karma

What was your career path prior to going to jail? What is it now?

flavorraven2 karma

I worked at a kennel. Now I am a home inspector for insurance companies.

maximuszen1 karma

What prison were you in? Did they offer meditation in your prision?

flavorraven1 karma

Well the last prison I was at before camp was in Jamestown, and they had Buddhist services there which I assume included meditation, but you can pretty much decide to meditate anywhere you go anytime in life.

countyourdeltaV1 karma

I thought inmates weren't allowed access to the internet. How did you get to our fair website? (You are a welcome addition, nonetheless).

flavorraven3 karma

I've been out for close to 3 years, but contraband smartphones do the trick as well.

Emerald_Triangle1 karma

Did you feel in any way that this was slave labor?

There are some threads saying that it is. I disagree, but want to hear your take.

flavorraven4 karma

No. It's optional, you get paid better than any other prison occupation (shitty pay by objective standards but for the $220 you can spend in commissary per month you're often maxed out), most get reduced sentences for it, and again: it's optional

SilentlyCrying1 karma

Were you treated differently by the other inmates?

flavorraven1 karma

No. I was living in a camp with only other firefighter inmates and the inmates working as our support staff (kitchen, janitorial, etc) who enjoyed similar benefits.

SilentlyCrying1 karma

How long did you stay in these camps for

flavorraven2 karma

I was only in camp for a year, but I spent a total of about 3 years in the prison system