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As Camp Fire Death Toll Rises, Meet the Prisoners Making $1 an Hour to Fight California’s Wildfires

StoryNovember 16, 2018
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The death toll from the Camp Fire in California has risen to at least 63, with 631 people reported missing. As California continues to battle the deadliest fire in the state’s history, we turn to the hidden heroes on the front lines the raging climate-fueled wildfires: prisoner firefighters. At least 1,500 of the 9,400 firefighters currently battling fires in California are incarcerated. They make just a dollar an hour battling on the front lines but are rarely eligible to get jobs as firefighters after their release. In September, the Democracy Now! team traveled to the Delta Conservation Camp about an hour north of San Francisco, a low-security prison where more than 100 men are imprisoned. We interviewed incarcerated firefighters who had just returned from a 24-hour shift fighting the Snell Fire in Napa County.

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Video squareStorySep 12, 2018A New Form of Slavery? Meet Incarcerated Firefighters Battling California’s Wildfires for $1 an Hour
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As the death toll from California’s Camp Fire continues to rise, we end today’s show with the hidden heroes on the front lines of the raging climate-fueled wildfires: prisoners firefighters. At least 1,500 of the 9,400 firefighters currently battling fires in California are incarcerated. They make a dollar an hour battling on the front lines but are rarely eligible to get jobs as firefighters after their release. Cal Fire reports five firefighters were injured during the Camp Fire’s first 24 hours, two of them prisoner firefighters who suffered burns. According to some estimates, California saves up to $100 million a year by using prison labor to fight its biggest environmental problem. Prison firefighters earn time off of their sentences for good behavior, typically two days off for each day they fight fires. But critics of the program say the state is exploiting prisoners’ eagerness to earn time for early release.

Well, in September, Democracy Now! traveled to the Delta Conservation Camp, about an hour north of San Francisco, to a low-security prison where more than a hundred men are imprisoned. We interviewed the incarcerated firefighters who had just returned from a 24-hour shift fighting the Snell Fire in Napa County. I spoke to prisoner firefighter Dante Youngblood under the close surveillance of prison administrators.

DANTE YOUNGBLOOD: Yes. Yeah, we cut line together. We be out there. We don’t—they don’t—we’re not split up from them. Like we’re not like, “Oh, bring the inmates over here.” Nah, it’s not like that. We just—we all out there together. We all out there helping each other. Like if I walk by one, and I see a Cal Fire or any firefighter and he need help or something with the hose or something like that, I help him. Because they’ll help us, too. We’re all here to help each other and make sure everybody’s safe.

AMY GOODMAN: How much money do you make?

DANTE YOUNGBLOOD: A dollar an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: When you’re fighting the fire?

DANTE YOUNGBLOOD: Yes, when you’re fighting a fire, a dollar an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how—for example, last night, how long were you fighting the fire?

DANTE YOUNGBLOOD: Probably 20-something hours, so we probably made $20, $22, $24.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of that?

DANTE YOUNGBLOOD: Well, I don’t think—I think we should make—of course, I would say, anybody that got a job, you would think you should make more. I always thought we was—I thought we was getting $2 until I came to fire camp. But, you know, it’s cool, though. I mean, we’re making money for something that we would probably do for free anyway just for the time cut. So it’s all right. But I would prefer, yes, we get more money, of course. Anybody in a working position would want to make more money.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re saving the state, to say the least, a lot of money. Some say it’s something like $100 million a year.

DANTE YOUNGBLOOD: I don’t know. I mean, of course that, I’m sure. But, I mean, we don’t even—some people don’t even—we look at it as getting the time. The time cut is more than the money to us. We’d rather make the money, for sure, because we still can send money to our families. We still send money home. But yeah, we only make a dollar an hour on the fires.

AMY GOODMAN: I also spoke with prisoner firefighter Marty Vinson.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think of yourself as a hero?

MARTY VINSON: I like to look at myself as somebody that I want to be here for whoever—like, whoever needs me, I want to be there for them. Just last night on this fire, we had somebody who came back not too long ago where the terrain of where we was climbing up, cutting line, there were just too many loose boulders. And, you know, we always try to do what we have to do, but still provide safety while doing it. And it’s just one of those situations where it’s no one’s fault, but it happens. And while they was cutting line, a boulder actually fell and hit him. And he popped something in his knee, and it just swelled up.

And it came to a point where we didn’t really have no answer to what are we going to do, how are we going to get him out of here. It’s night. They don’t do no airlifts at night. They don’t want nothing in the air at night. So it led to the possibility of us just bedding down at the bottom of this creek and wait until like morning. And it was just something where—it’s a natural thing about me: I want to be there for people. So I just volunteered and said, “Well, look, me, personally, I don’t feel like it’s relevant for us to stay down here.” So I just volunteered to take my pack off and carry him up the mountain.

AMY GOODMAN: So you carried him up from below, near the creek?

MARTY VINSON: Yes. The first part was maybe the worst part. It was real steep. A lot of people didn’t think it would actually happen like that, but it was something that I just pushed myself to say I’m going to do, and I got it done. We went going straight uphill to having to go sidehill, which that was another cautious area, because the road was probably like two feet wide. So it was something—it took its time. It went from 2:00 in the morning to like almost 5:00 in the morning, but we got him up there, and now he’s back here.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re risking your life here.

MARTY VINSON: It’s exactly what’s going on. Everything we do, you know, no one’s really promised to come back.

AMY GOODMAN: And how much do you make?

MARTY VINSON: A dollar an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: When you’re fighting a fire.

MARTY VINSON: When you’re fighting a fire, a dollar an hour. When you’re on typical grade, you make $1.45 a day.

AMY GOODMAN: Some have called it slave labor. What do you think of that?

MARTY VINSON: I don’t really want to call the work slave work, but I feel like it’s their whole mentality and what they’re thinking about at the end of the day.

AMY GOODMAN: Marty Vinson and Dante Youngblood. To see the whole interview, go to democracynow.org.

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A New Form of Slavery? Meet Incarcerated Firefighters Battling California’s Wildfires for $1 an Hour

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