Why Fighting California Wildfires Was the Best Prison Job I Ever Had

In 1985, I decided to move from New York to California without knowing anyone in the state. I was caught up in the hype of what I saw on TV. With its beautiful women and rolling hills, Los Angeles looked to me like the promised land.

When I arrived, I got a job working at Los Angeles International Airport unloading planes. In my shallow genius, I decided to take some of the merchandise I was unloading home with me. I used the money I made selling stolen items to buy drugs to deal.

Within about six months, I started to use those drugs. I was fired from my job and began living among homeless people in downtown L.A.’s Skid Row. Not having the means to keep up with my crack habit, I started stealing from stores and breaking into cars.

I got caught about a year later and was sentenced to two years in prison. I figured I would only have to serve half of that time and planned to sleep through much of it.

When I got to Chino state prison, a counselor asked me what I wanted to do. I told her I had no idea because I had no real work history. She asked me if I’d ever considered being a firefighter. At first, she sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher — wah, wah, wah.

But then she told me that I could go to a facility that would train me to fight wildland fires. Since I didn’t have any escapes, arson or sexual crimes on my record, I would be a good fit for the job.

I arrived at Sierra Conservation Center in the summer of 1987. The first thing I noticed was that the population of this minimum- and medium-security prison was segregated. It was an unspoken rule among the inmates that you stayed within your race and with the people from your neighborhood. Because I was from New York and had never been in a gang in California, it was hard for me to make and keep friends. I was a “buster,” which meant I was gang-neutral.

After about three weeks, I had to report to fitness training. Every day for a couple of weeks, I had to run a mile in under eight minutes and do jumping jacks, cherry pickers, trunk twisters, toe touches, windmills and burpees. Then I went to fire suppression classes for two weeks, where I learned that a blaze needs three things to ignite: oxygen, heat and fuel. This was called the fire triangle. It was our job to remove the fuel from that triangle.

Once I graduated from training, I was assigned to Cuesta Conservation Camp #24 on the west side of the California Men’s Colony. I was fitted for fire-resistant clothing and equipment, including a helmet, gloves, boots and a fire shelter, often called a “shake and bake.” Everything was brand new. I was also assigned a McLeod — a raking and cutting tool for small brush or grass fires — and I was placed in “hook line order,” the position a firefighter takes when putting out a blaze.

When it was time to work, those of us fighting the fire would ride to a location in a crew-carrying vehicle, disembark in our hook line order, and, while carrying our tools, hike to the fire. Our attack mode depended on the type of fuel that was burning — usually grass, trees or small brush.

There was a White guy I’ll call Mitch who was assigned to a tool that he didn’t want. The captain thought this tool would be best for his position in the hook line, but nothing could convince Mitch. He was an angry man who often lashed out at others with racial epithets.

One day we were at a fire that got out of control. It had started as a brush fire and became a “major rager,” which means it had blown up. The wind was blowing fiercely, and the blaze was moving rapidly toward us. Because you can’t outrun a fire, the captain told us to deploy our tent-like fire shelters.

As soon as I pulled out my fire shelter, the wind blew it out of my hands. The fire shelter is designed for one person to use at a time, but Mitch screamed for me to get into his tent with him. We stayed under the flimsy material for about 15 minutes without saying a word until we heard the all-clear signal. That 15 minutes felt like an hour. When we came out, everything was silent and totally blackened. It’s ironic that the person I’d deemed a racist probably saved my life.

We were only paid $1 an hour when actively fighting a fire, but the money didn’t matter to me because we worked as a team. Sometimes we would stay at a fire for two or three weeks, and when we left, people would hold up thank-you signs. People would bring pastries, sodas or sandwiches to us. No one treated us like inmates; we were firefighters.

On the ride home in the crew-carrying vehicle, we would feel a sense of pride. Back at camp, we’d put the ’hood mentality on pause, and everybody became friends. Just as we removed the fuel that completed the fire triangle, I wondered if we could extract a piece of the hatred triangle and inspire people to love one another.

As I cycled in and out of prison over the years, I logged over 3,000 hours on the fire lines of different camps. It was the best job I ever had. Being a firefighter taught me that there’s nothing wrong with needing help, and it helped me see the unlimited possibilities of what we can achieve if we only work together.

David Desmond holds an associate degree from SUNY Sullivan Community College and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas Aquinas College. At Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, he works in mobile aid escorting blind prisoners to their appointments. Desmond is serving a sentence of 18 years to life for burglary.


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