Incarcerated Women Are Fighting on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires for $1 an Hour

October 11, 2017
Lauren Evans

Large swaths of California have been destroyed by wildfires that have left at least 21 dead, razing thousands of homes and businesses throughout the region.

Twenty-two fires are still burning around the state, their strength exacerbated by relentless winds. According to ABC News, 170,000 acres of land have been charred, and at least 20,000 residents have been forced to evacuate. Damage to buildings is estimated at around 3,500 structures.

Among those working to tamp down the seemingly uncontrollable blazes are around 200 female inmates, working on salaries of $1 an hour when they’re on the fire’s front lines, and $2 per day on top of that.

“We are the ones that do the line. We are the ones that carry the hose out. We’re the line of defense,” Sandra Welsh, one of the incarcerated women, told NBC News.

In total, around 3,800 inmates—men and women—fight fires in California, comprising around 13 percent of the state’s firefighting force. Their low salaries save taxpayers $124 million per year.

Talking to NBC, Welsh says she sees the program, which inmates sign up for voluntarily, as a net positive for her and her family.

“This prison trip has taken a lot out of their lives and I wanted them to have something to hold onto,” Welsh, who is also at the Malibu camp, told the station. “My mom’s a firefighter. I might be an inmate firefighter, but I’m a firefighter.”

Other inmates are not at all pleased by the wages, particularly considering the incredible hazards of the job. La’Sonya Edwards, an inmate who fights fires in southern California, told the New York Times in August that she makes around $500 per year in camp, plus an extra few hundred for working on the fire line. The salary of a full time civilian fighter starts at around $40,000.

‘‘The pay is ridiculous,’’ she told the paper. ‘‘There are some days we are worn down to the core,’’ she said. ‘‘And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.’’

Incarcerated or not, California’s fires are working firefighters to exhaustion. Though there are around 800 personnel working around the clock to contain them, their strength is being tested.

“There’s no doubt there’s extreme fatigue,” Cal Fire’s deputy incident commander in Napa, Barry Biermann, told the Los Angeles Times. “They are pushing it to the limits. Everyone is.”

“We are stretching them shift after shift. We are trying to get them rest so they can reengage fresh,” he added. “They are being pushed to limits that have not normally been pushed due to all these life safety issues and rescues.”

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