The recent wildfires in northern California have consumed more than 201,000 acres of land and resulted in at least 42 deaths. In response, the state’s fire agency, CAL FIRE, has mobilized more than 11,000 firefighters. Of those, 1,500 were inmates from minimum security conservation camps run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where they are trained to work on fire suppression and other emergencies like floods and earthquakes.
The photographer Brian L. Frank has covered the conservation camps for the past year and lives 10 minutes away from Coffey Park, a Sonoma County neighborhood that sustained heavy damage from the wildfires. He has captured images of the inmates as they handle emergencies but also during their downtime studying for a GED, playing cards, and lifting weights to maintain the physical fitness needed to fight fires.
Last week, Frank went to photograph the men from the state’s Antelope Conservation Camp as they worked to put out the fire in the Oakmont neighborhood of Santa Rosa.
“They work just as hard as any hand crew doing the dirtiest, hardest part of firefighting,” said Frank. “They do the brutal, backbreaking part of digging fire lines and clearing fuel out of the path of a fire—the thankless work.”
There are 43 conservation camps in California for adult offenders, and 30 to 40 percent of CAL FIRE’s firefighters are inmates from the camps. The inmates work 24-hour shifts, often sleeping in the wilderness, then get 24 hours of rest before heading back to fight fires. Most inmates in California get a day off their sentence for each day of good behavior. Inmates in the firefighting program get two days off for each day they’re in the conservation camps.
The fires in Northern California are now close to 98 percent contained, thanks in part to 3,800 inmates from the state prison system’s conservation camps who have been fighting fires statewide over the last two weeks.
Brian L. Frank is a Catchlight Fellow working in collaboration with The Marshall Project.