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As Rich Hire Private Firefighters, Housekeepers Go to Work in Fire Zone & Prisoners Fight CA Blazes

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As climate-fueled fires rage across California, we look at how the blazes are disproportionately affecting some of the state’s most vulnerable communities. As a growing number of wealthy homeowners hire private firefighters to protect their properties for up to $3,000 per day, domestic workers and gardeners who tend to some of the most opulent homes in Los Angeles attended work despite the Getty Fire evacuation order earlier this week. Many of their employers failed to even tell them not to come in. Meanwhile, of the more than 4,000 firefighters currently working across the state, at least 700 are California prisoners. They earn as little as $1 per hour. We speak with Amika Mota, a former prisoner firefighter and the policy director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco, and Los Angeles Times journalist Brittny Mejia. Her piece is titled “Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re continuing to look at the climate-fueled fires raging across California, now turning to how the blazes are disproportionately affecting some of the state’s most vulnerable communities. As The New York Times reports, a growing number of rich people are hiring private firefighters to protect their property for up to $3,000 per day. Domestic workers and gardeners who tend to some of the most opulent homes in Los Angeles attended work despite the Getty Fire evacuation order earlier this week. Many of their employers failed to even tell them not to come in. That’s according to a Los Angeles Times article headlined “Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by the journalist who reported the story, Brittny Mejia. She joins us in Los Angeles.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what you found in “Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames.” Describe the situation for us.

BRITTNY MEJIA: Yeah. Thanks so much, first off, for having me.

Yeah, so when I got — actually, I got sent out to the fire around 4:00 in the morning. And by the time I got to Brentwood, it was mostly evacuated. There were maybe a few people left trying to see if they could sit tight, but for the most part it was completely empty. And then, after I left a neighborhood where there were actually homes that burned, I saw a taxi coming in and dropping off a housekeeper, who was pretty convinced that her bosses were still there, because they hadn’t called her. They didn’t tell her anything. And there’s just ash coming down and so much smoke in this neighborhood, and she’s just ringing the bell. And, you know, we quickly learned that her boss was not home and had evacuated at 3:00 in the morning.

And so, as we headed back — as I gave her a ride and we headed back down, we bumped into a significant number of other workers who had come in. There was a construction worker who made it to his job site and saw the fire and then left; another woman who was trying to get into the mandatory evacuation zone to try and go to work, because she also hadn’t heard from her boss; a babysitter who was covering her face with a paper towel. The bus wouldn’t take her to Pacific Palisades, and, like, she ended up being stuck kind of right around this area. And so it was a significant amount of workers who, when we did get a hold of the bosses, or when I was able to talk to them, they just forgot to tell their workers not to come in.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And were the workers aware, Brittny, that there was an evacuation order in place?

BRITTNY MEJIA: Yeah, so that’s the thing — no. This woman that was dropped off by the taxi, I honestly don’t — I’m not even sure how she got in. I think she was just really desperate to go to work that day. But, yeah, I mean, she had no idea. Like, she was like, “Oh, there’s a helicopter.” And as we spoke, she observed there was a helicopter. And I was like, “Yeah, there’s a lot of smoke, there’s ash, because there’s a fire. It’s pretty nearby.” And so, she — you know, at that moment, I think I could tell she was scared, which she then told the owner, like, “I’m scared to be here by myself.”

AMY GOODMAN: Brittny, very quickly, you speak Spanish. You’ve been interviewing people in Spanish. Are all the orders going out in Spanish so people understand the dangers?

BRITTNY MEJIA: Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t know how targeted it was to the workers who come into this neighborhood. I don’t know if the focus was mostly on the people who live in Brentwood, which I’m sure that would be mostly, I feel like, English-speaking. And so, I don’t know how much it was targeted, because when I spoke to the workers, quite a few of them had no idea, at least about where the evac zone was. A few weren’t even aware that there was a fire, and learned when they arrived. So, I don’t know how much information they were getting to try and help — you know, help their decision not to come to work.

AMY GOODMAN: So, speaking of people in danger, we want to turn to the more than 4,000 firefighters working across California to contain the blazes. At least 700 of them are California prisoners. While salaried firefighters earn an annual mean wage of like $74,000 a year plus benefits, prisoners earn about a dollar an hour when fighting active fires.

We go now to San Francisco, where we’re joined by Amika Mota, a former prisoner firefighter, policy director at Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco.

Amika, well, we’re back with you again. When we were in San Francisco going to the prison camps where the prisoners are that fight fires, that are very treasured by the free firefighters because they do so much of the most dangerous work — we’re talking to you again. When you were imprisoned, when you were incarcerated, you were a firefighter. Explain the situation right now.

AMIKA MOTA: Well, I think that — thanks for having me back again, Amy. It’s nice to talk to you.

I think that, you know, in California, we certainly have a deep concern for our folks that are out there on the frontlines fighting fires while incarcerated, as well as all of the other firefighters that are battling the blazes across California. I think that the issues haven’t changed much since we talked last time. We have worked on a number of legislative efforts to try to kind of balance out the inequities of a labor force that works fighting fires on the inside and then comes home and can’t do the same. But I think that there’s a couple of narratives that really exist about this force of incarcerated firefighters. And it’s, you know: Is this a positive prison program that’s benefiting incarcerated people, or is this a capitalist abuse of the most vulnerable population? Which we know our prisons are warehoused with black and brown folks. So I think that we are still at that same — at that same point of, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: What is astounding is the level of experience and danger they face. And the experience they get —

AMIKA MOTA: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — when they get out of prison, are not allowed to be firefighters, so end up often serving the rich, being private firefighters around estates.

AMIKA MOTA: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there — it really doesn’t make sense that we come home and that there is this large barrier. We’re not able to get EMT licenses, which is what we need to be working at municipal fire departments, because there are really clear restrictions on being licensed when you have two or more felonies on your record or you have a charge that’s seven years or less. And so, basically, we have folks that are really trained up and have the potential to come home and be a really productive member of society and have stable careers, and that is not happening. We have folks that are coming home and unable to keep minimum-wage jobs because of the barriers that exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, I want to ask Congressman Ro Khanna: This issue of the prisoners making like a dollar — is it a dollar a day, Amika, or a dollar an hour?

AMIKA MOTA: Well, at the fire camps, it’s about a dollar an hour. I earned about 53 cents.

AMY GOODMAN: About a dollar an hour. Is there a discussion — when we were there, the commanders at the camps said, “These people should be making more than this.” We’re talking about more than 40 camps, that this has been the wage for decades.

REP. RO KHANNA: It’s outrageous. And there is a discussion in Congress. Yesterday, we actually posted on social media our outrage at how the prisoners are being treated. There’s no excuse in this country to abuse the prison population. Obviously, there’s incarceration, but once someone’s a prisoner, they should be still compensated for basic labor. And certainly, when they leave, as you pointed out, they should be able to reintegrate into society and have the value of the expertise and experience they’ve gained.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, on the issue of the fossil-fueled economy, before we get to impeachment, if you could make this very brief —


AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Syria, where President Trump has, you know, abandoned the Kurds but said that he is protecting the oil fields, both in northern Syria — that’s where U.S. soldiers will go — and thousands he is sending to Saudi Arabia to protect their oil fields.

REP. RO KHANNA: I appreciate your raising this, because this is a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention. We can’t send troops to extract oil. You can’t steal oil from other countries. And our presence in Syria, it’s important to realize, is still unconstitutional. There has been no congressional authorization. So, it was appalling to hear the president say that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank Amika Mota of the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco, talking to us about the imprisoned firefighters, and Brittny Mejia of the L.A. Times, speaking to us from Los Angeles.

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