The fire season for 2020 so far, has been the worst on record in California’s history. Unfortunately, as climate change is expected to enhance the duration, frequency, and severity of heatwaves, it is unlikely to remain an exception in regard to wildfires. This year alone, Cal Fire estimates that 4,197,628 acres have already burned. Five of the six largest fires in California history started in August and September of 2020.
California faced an added difficulty entering this fire season due to a shortage of inmate firefighters after prisons released many individuals early due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Conservation Camp Program has operated since 1915, allowing inmate volunteers with sustained good behavior and without violent records to support government agencies as they respond to fires. When not actively fighting fires, these inmates perform crucial conservation and community service projects, such as clearing dead brush and fire fuel, maintaining parks, and reforestation.
Until recently, many of these volunteer inmates were unable to secure employment as firefighters after release. However, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB-2147 into law on September 11, 2020, allowing prisoners who received “valuable training and [placed] themselves in danger assisting firefighters to defend the life and property of Californians” to petition courts to dismiss their convictions after release. A clean record will enable them to receive an EMT certification, which most municipal fire departments require. Although Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and hotshot crews do not require EMT certifications and already employ many former prisoners, this new law will increase the competitiveness of former inmates for jobs in those organizations and increase their opportunities for promotion.
This is precisely the type of program needed to truly rehabilitate nonviolent offenders: allowing them to have their records expunged upon release as appreciation of their discipline and courage to fight dangerous fires and providing them valuable, marketable skills so that they can achieve success after release. However, more is necessary to help reintegrate these individuals into society as productive citizens.
Fortunately, the emerging clean energy economy and the ongoing transition from non-renewable energy sources provide just such opportunity for job training in a new and essential industry sector. The Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank, considers a push for workforce development efforts to be essential to the success of any federal or state efforts to transition to clean energy. The shift to renewable energy will demand a sizeable workforce as the market for clean designs, tech, and other advanced industries expands. Offering specialized training to inmates in skilled trade positions would help establish the U.S. as competitive and capable in the green energy infrastructure sector. Most important for inmates who have served their time, it would ensure competitive wages and provide an opportunity for them to gain valuable skills. Whether the transition to clean energy is accomplished through the Green New Deal or other programs, rising demand for clean infrastructure and energy jobs presents an opportunity to create a more equitable future for all, including those who have served their time.