Fact: 20% of Thomas Fire Firefighters are Inmates (by Jon Vreeland)

Unfortunately, the flames continue to burn California’s southern coast while our first responders continue to put their lives on the line. One 32-year-old firefighter by the name of Cory Iverson from San Diego has perished in this natural disaster that’s destroyed nearly a thousand structures, charred over 250,000 acres of land, shut down the “mom and pop” businesses our community thrives on, and all the while, only 35% of the fire is contained.

But what some are not aware of, is: 1 out of 5 men and women who fight what is now the fourth largest fire in California’s history, are federal inmates, a.k.a. Prisoners who have received prison sentences and were sent to “Fire Camp.” It’s simple. These people who have been trusted to help and save hundreds of thousands of other people whose life and belongings remain in the heat of danger, (no pun intended), are prisoners from state prisons. Human beings who are willing to die for you and me.  

But, every time I tell someone this, how these, what some refer to as “wretched” human beings, are out there fighting these monstrous fires, how they’ve been given the opportunity to illegally release themselves back into the wild, (and to a place where the president of the U.S. could very well be a prisoner as well, if he didn’t have money), their response is always the same:

“What? No way.”

And if this were the 90’s I’d say, “way.”

“Well how is that even possible?”

“That’s easy. Free labor from men who are mostly drug addicts and not criminals at all. Men willing to put their life on the line for yours.”

Then, the conversation, most always anyhow, succumbs to this very controversial topic, because, understandably, most of those who have never been to jail or prison, don’t know what to say or even think about this, (and all because they’ve never been properly informed). The stereotypes take over and all they think of is criminals, murderers and rapists with tattoos on their head and even their face out in the burning wild and close to people’s homes, their homes and livelihoods.

Joseph Serna and Joe Mozingo of the Los Angeles Times says, “Laying some of the hardest roles are the inmate hand crews, which make up about 20% of the firefighters here. On a ridge above Montecito on Thursday, they worked in crews of 15, leaders shouting orders, scarifying a ribbon of mountain too steep and craggy for any bulldozer.”

Magdelena Medina, a Santa Barbara local, wants people to understand how she also feels to have her son Mario Medina, a California inmate at the moment, out there fighting the fire and risking his life as well, along with the other inmates, who she refers to as “our angels in orange” and how they “have not been mentioned hardly at all.”

My faithful readers, let me tell you just this:

My friend named Mikey, who has been to prison half a dozen times, who has tats on his face and all over his body, his teeth are rotted and his arms have scars from self inflicted lethal injections, would be at the top of my list if my family was in life threatening danger. If Mikey was in the neighborhood at the time I’d feel a major sense of relief knowing a real human being with a real spirit and soul—one that doesn’t lie for popularity contests that result in too much money and businesses that pay peanuts to their employees—was also in the vicinity to help save lives of people and animals.

I’ve been around firefighters my entire life. I have heard their opinions and feelings about every topic under the sun: drugs, alcohol, religion, rookies, women in the fire department. But I never knew, not until I was caged myself for a period of time, that this was true: that prisoners were out there giving back to communities they have, possibly, done wrong.

I had to find out for myself almost 10 years ago.

First hand experience is always the best, not tv and movies and even major news networks, (who have barely covered this catastrophe at all, just that man they call…well, I forget his name actually). I don’t have time for phonies, just real people with real problems who are not afraid to put their life on the line when the same people they are saving would never in a million years think to do that for them if the prison was burning down to the ground. No, fucking, way.

God bless every man and woman out there, “criminal” or not.

*not my picture, Ben Margot/AP, thanks Ben! 

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