California Wildfires Have Been Fought by Prisoners Since World War II

The war had turned forestry work into a form of civil defense, and prisoners a new army on the home front.

When it comes to California’s natural disasters—fires, earthquakes, floods—a surprising cohort of first responders have served on the front lines since World War II: prison inmates.

While the idea of using prisoners for back-breaking, low-cost labor on road crews harks back to the late 19th century, the state of California first tapped inmates to fight brush and forest fires in 1942. After military conscription and war industries rapidly emptied the state’s forestry camps of able-bodied men serving in the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the State Forestry found itself in a manpower crunch. Worse, fire marshals predicted that bombing and ‘sabotage’ by Japanese Americans increased the risk of fires and could threaten crucial watersheds and food production in the area of various Army installations and ship-building plants.

Southern California’s Chino prison, located 50 miles east of Los Angeles, stepped into the void. Together with the state forestry service, it established 14 forest camps over the course of the war. The first one opened on a 10-acre plot at Palomar Mountain in the Cleveland National Forest early in 1942. As of 2014, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports, prisoners were performing more than 3 million hours or more of emergency-response work annually, with those numbers likely to be on the rise with the Golden State’s rising number of record wildfires.

The role has been a unique one. Participating volunteers, who are prescreened—no violent offenders or arsonists allowed—mostly worked, and work, as laborers maintaining public lands. But they also served increasingly as emergency responders to fires, floods, earthquakes and in search-and-rescue operations. Inmates benefited from early release, work furloughs and a slightly greater sense of freedom. In camps and especially on the fire line, the tools of captivity—such as shackles or armed guards—were usually absent, at least in the early decades. And prisoners’ work helping rural communities in times of crisis helped, sporadically, to soften some of the state’s racial and ethnic divides.

Prisoners at Oak Glen Conservation Camp leave the minimum-security prison for work deployment under the authority of Cal Fire, during which time they are called and treated as firefighters rather than inmates until they return to camp, on September 28, 2017. 

Forestry as civil defense

World War II had turned forestry work into a form of civil defense, and prisoners a new army on the home front. Clearing brush, building retaining walls, grading roads and fire lines—on the surface, much of the work in the new conservation camps was familiar from the road-labor camps in the nation’s South and West since the 1890s. But the context of fire prevention turned this ordinary labor—not to mention emergency deployments on a fire line—into a national service. Civilians and prison administrators referred to camp inmates as “troops” or “soldiers” and their work sites as “trenches” or “battlefields.” Whether the convicts were dealing with floods, airplane crashes or earthquakes, state agencies and reporters typically described prisoners’ emergency relief work in military terms.

Many prisoners jumped at the chance to see themselves as soldiers on home-front lines than as men behind bars. “Sweat, muscles and endurance are the only factors that can perform this arduous and extremely dangerous work” of saving “modern civilization” from enemy “sabotage,” one prisoner was quoted as saying in a corrections’ department biannual report during the war years. At Chino, inmates actually manned the towers as air-raid sentries, feeling more like guards than prisoners.

Rehabilitation—and respect

For California’s prison managers, the new program had another benefit: the prospect of rehabilitation. Prisoners would save forests, and the forests, in turn, would save the men. Romantic notions of male rehabilitation through outdoor forest work drew on deeply entrenched myths about frontier life. If urban blight and industrial decline undermined men’s good conduct and citizenship, then forests, mountains and proximity to (almost exclusively white) country folk could provide the antidote.

At least that was the idea.

For many rural communities, though, the proximity of prisoners, most of whom were people of color, fed a deeply entrenched racial animus. In 1949, for example, a resident of the small town of Magalia, 90 miles north of Sacramento, spoke on behalf of the “people in this community” when he asked that there should “be no Negroes or Japanese prisoners in the camp.” Many white folks migrating from the growing cities and suburbs did so to find a “natural escape” from the trials of city life like traffic congestion, pollution, urban development—and crime. That helps explains why white San Franciscan transplants prevented the establishment of forest camps in Sonoma and Santa Clara counties north and south of the city, despite the pleas of professional firefighters.

But given the work they did, and the lives they touched, prisoners themselves demanded respect as firefighters first, as workers second—and often received it. 

In one 1961 letter, a resident addressed the inmates at Chamberlain Creek: “I wish to thank Crew 1 in their part in fighting and controlling the Guerneville fire… I [heard] one lady in a soda fountain saying, ‘Those men from the volunteer fire department in the blue outfits, you know, like the dungarees the navy men wear, well, the fire came down to my back porch, right where my wash was hanging and they came in and put it out. They didn’t even get the clothes dirty.’ … Then I told her that you were convicts and she said, ‘I don’t care who they are. They saved my house.’”

In 1964 the residents of Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains hosted an appreciation dinner, handed over a thank-you note with over 1,300 signatures and erected a statue to commemorate what the California Department of Corrections called a “unique California ‘army’.” 

Former inmate Wayne Hunnicutt remembered grateful communities frequently “[bringing] stuff out for us.” “[N[o one treated us like prisoners.” Charles Dean, one of the many college student volunteers in the fire seasons of 1954 and 1955, remembers working next to prisoners: “There simply was no line between us.”