Forestry Fire & Recruitment Program: Empowering Former Inmates to Fight Wildfires

February is Black History Month. In honor of Black Americans making remarkable change within our society, we share the story of the Forestry Fire and Recruitment Program (FFRP), a non-profit organization created by two former prisoners to help others like them to secure post-incarceration jobs, purpose and dignity through becoming wildland firefighters.
The FFRP’s award-winning work at the intersection of environmental and criminal justice challenges in California has also had a local impact in Tahoe: their wildland fire hand crew of former inmates helped fight the Caldor Fire! 

After Brandon Smith and Royal Ramey served as incarcerated firefighters in CalFire’s fire camp program, they struggled to secure regular employment as professional wildland firefighters. Despite having work experience fighting fire, Smith was turned away by multiple fire agencies and spent two years piecing together information from contacts in the industry to navigate necessary re-trainings, certifications, and seasonal application deadlines, all while facing the transportation restrictions posed by the conditions of his parole for a low-level offense. Ramey experienced similar difficulties yet also persisted in navigating the system to pursue the work he loved and wanted to do to support his family.

Roughly one third of California’s wildland firefighters are incarcerated. For decades, the state has relied on prison labor to help fight wildfires, saving the state about $100 million annually. There are approximately 1,600 inmates working at fire camps throughout the state. (Inmates convicted of arson or violent and sexual offenses are barred from participation in the fire camp program.) Prisoners accepted to the CalFire fire camp program go through the same rigorous physical tests, trainings and classes as all other wildland firefighters and they do the same work, but the prison fire camp certifications they receive are not directly transferable to post-incarceration employment.

The difficulties they experienced securing post-release employment inspired Smith and Ramey to co-found the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP). Launched informally in 2015 and incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit in 2018, FFRP provides individuals — primarily formerly incarcerated men and women of color — with on-the-job training, re-entry support, and connections to firefighting careers. To date, FFRP has provided training and career support to more than 3,000 currently and formerly incarcerated individuals; 110 formerly incarcerated individuals have successfully secured jobs with CalFire, the US Forest Service and private fire departments. One individual successfully had his criminal record expunged in his quest to become an EMT.

This ~30 min video is an intimate and inspiring look into the formation of FFRP’s Buffalo Hand Crew and how it has changed formerly incarcerated peoples’ lives – including one crew member’s successful quest to have his criminal record expunged.

In 2022, FFRP sponsored its first bill, AB1908, that would have enabled any inmate who successfully completed the prison fire camp program to receive a firefighter certificate from CalFire upon release. Unfortunately, swift pushback from the firefighters’ union quashed the bill. But this or similar legislation will be crucial to reforming the fire camp program into a solid career pathway, and will also improve overall societal well-being by increasing career opportunities and addressing industry-wide labor shortages by realigning policy incentives away from reliance on incarcerated workers as a low-cost solution to the state’s labor problem.

As Smith says, “Formerly incarcerated people deserve the opportunity to work in this space. You trained us, we did the same classes as you, we did the same work for you. It only makes sense that if you’ve been doing the job, you should be able to continue doing the job. Especially in a world where we are understaffed on firefighters. I found my own way through this obscure maze, now FFRP is about expanding those pathways.”

FFRP’s innovative programs include:

  • The “Worker Hub,” where FFRP helps formerly incarcerated individuals apply for firefighting positions, maintain good physical condition through weekly training sessions, and prepare for interviews. Additionally, FFRP and its partners help participants address barriers to employment by providing case management and re-entry support services.
  • Providing FFRP participants awaiting job opportunities with transitional employment and on-the-job training on its hand crews based in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Ventura Counties. Participants receive an hourly wage of $15 while conducting fire prevention, hazard mitigation and post-fire clean-up work subsidized by private homeowners, businesses, local fire safe councils, and federal land managers.
  • In 2019, FFRP launched a five-month wildland fire academy, Career Training Program (CTP), to provide participants with the required training for professional careers in the wildland and forestry sector. Participants receive monthly stipends, 300 hours of classroom-based and on-the-job training, and 300 hours of whole person care.
  • In 2021, FFRP launched its own private firefighting crew — The Buffalo Fire Crew — which is comprised of five full-time and 10 part-time firefighters, many of whom are CTP graduates. The “Buffalos” were deployed to help fight the Caldor Fire in October 2021.

Last year, Smith and Ramey received the prestigious James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award in recognition of their work at the intersection of criminal justice and environmental challenges in California. The award bestowed the FFRP with $250,000, which will be used to expand the group’s work into new communities in California, including a partnership with the University of California at Berkeley in which 200 formerly incarcerated individuals will assist and train with Berkeley Forest staff at five research forests across the state.

As Ramey says “Our work prevents wildfires, diversifies the workforce, and creates positive opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals to contribute to their communities.”

We applaud Smith, Ramey and the FFRP for all that they are doing to empower formerly incarcerated people to play an increasingly important role in fighting wildfires to keep our forests and communities healthy and safe.

Text adapted from:
Brandon Smith & Royal Ramey, The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program Video
Meet the formerly incarcerated fire crew protecting California from wildfires, LA Times Video

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