Did You Know Some of Our Heroes are Inmates?

2 firefighters spraying water from a firehose onto a raging fire

What should we do for the woodland firefighters who’ve risked their lives for us this past month?

They worked fourteen-hour days in conditions most of us would run from. The heat exceeded one hundred degrees and just kept on climbing up as they shoveled dirt onto the flames or wielded chainsaws to clear the way. And they did it day, after day, after day. Not every life was saved or home spared from the infernos, and that is a sad truth. But how many lives and houses were saved? How many people were able to return home who wouldn’t have otherwise? The answers to those questions may never be clear. But what is clear, is that we owe these firefighters a hell of a lot more than the $9.80 a day they were paid.

That’s right, not per hour, but $9.80 per day! It’s a fact that some of our bravest earned only that much… because they are incarcerated. Over 150 Inmates of the Department of Corrections serve on wilderness fire crews. A recent change in Oregon law now labels them “Adults In Custody,” but what’s in a name? They are prisoners serving time for offenses against society. And yet, they volunteered to risk their lives to protect the same society that locked them up.

The tryout process is a brutal physical fitness test followed by days of tough training. To be sure, not every convict is even eligible; only minimum custody felons with exemplary behavior are considered. Those who make it, however, are rewarded with the rich opportunity to break their backs with a shovel or an ax as fire rages around them.

I’ve met these people and the correctional officers who go into the smoke with them. Specifically, I know the ladies of the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility’s teams. That’s right, of the convicts who make up these teams statewide, forty of them are women. And Oregon citizens are often unaware that they’re being saved by inmates. In fact, they frequently bring these firefighters food and bottled water, and sometimes even pick up a shovel and help. Only after the fire line is done, do they introduce themselves.

Always they are shocked to discover their saviors are prisoners, and sometimes the prisoners are shocked to discover the citizen who’s house they just saved is a district attorney (true story). These adults return to prison, dirty and exhausted, to collapse into steel bunks. Then, they get up the next morning to do it again. And I personally think we can do better for them than $9.80 a day.

California recently passed Assembly Bill 2147, allowing their fire fighting convicts to expunge their criminal records upon release. Costing the taxpayer nothing, this California law gives these heroes a fresh start once their debt to society is paid. For risking their very lives, they are given the chance to start anew—to find a job, to be accepted, and to have a future untainted by their past.

Sure, some of them will probably lapse back into criminality and find themselves incarcerated again. This is not a perfect world, full of perfect people, and it never will be. But for those who will take advantage of this fresh start, we can be thankful. After all, once out of prison, these folks inevitably become our neighbors. And don’t we want our neighbors to have the best possible chance of success? Especially those neighbors who have risked their lives to save our homes?

Citizens of Oregon, let’s do this!

Please, contact your Oregon State Senator and Representative at Find Your Legislator. Let them know how we can show our gratitude for the hard work and courage of our incarcerated firefighters!