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Incarcerated people who helped fight wildfires struggle to build a career post-prison


California has long relied on its prison population to fight wildfires. It's one of at least 14 states that sets up fire camps for incarcerated people to train to fight fires. It's an alternative sentencing option - an opportunity to serve the public as wildfires become increasingly urgent. And to some who attend fire camp, it's a pathway to a life calling.

But building a career as a firefighter after leaving prison is not easy. Just ask Royal Ramey. He's the co-founder and CEO of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program. That's a nonprofit based in California that helps formerly incarcerated firefighters find employment. But years before Ramey started his nonprofit, he was incarcerated, attended fire camp and fell in love with being a firefighter. I told him to take me back, over a decade ago, to that moment.

ROYAL RAMEY: I was incarcerated in a fire camp for about 20 months. I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. All I know is that I wanted to get closer to home and be in a dormitory setting where you can get, you know, good food. I didn't really know, like, you know, what a wildland firefighter was. But once I got there, as time went on, I actually embraced it, and I fell in love with it. It's definitely a dangerous job, right? But that kind of thing kind of, you know, thrilled me, being young, active male - you know? - growing up and chasing the adrenaline rush when it comes to, you know, being a hero and actually going out and, like, slaying the dragon, as we call it.

SUMMERS: I understand that you were released from prison in 2014. And when you were, you began pursuing a professional career in firefighting. What was that process like, and how long did it take for you to find a job?

RAMEY: Oh, man. How long do you got? 'Cause we could talk about this all day (laughter).

SUMMERS: Oh, man.

RAMEY: No - so honestly, it took about 11 months to figure it out. How I felt was, like, either I'm going to be a wildland firefighter, or I'm going to, you know, couch-surf or whatever at my mom's house. Like, it was either that or nothing else. It was definitely a challenge. It was a lot of - it was really the lack of knowledge - like, understanding, like, OK, where do I go? Like...


RAMEY: You have certifications that you need, and then the application process - understanding how to present yourself and even talking about that background question, right? Like, that's definitely a thing as well.

SUMMERS: You've talked so much about the challenge of navigating that landscape of finding a job. I wonder, how does your program help people tackle these barriers?

RAMEY: We help navigate multiple things. So we give you the certifications you need in order for you to be able to gain an entry-level position with the Forest Service, Cal Fire or any other wildland agency. And then we also help you with the job application process. And then we also help with, you know, tech literacy 'cause I notice a lot of folks is - that when they come out of prison, it's kind of hard to navigate a website.


RAMEY: We focus on the expungement process. So Gavin Newsom passed a law - I think about four years ago now - and what it pretty much does is help people that come out of, like, California Conservation Camps - being able to get their record expunged, which is amazing because it provides an opportunity where folks can, you know, apply to not only just fire careers, but, like, you know, they can have a brand-new life.

SUMMERS: You first started pursuing a firefighting career about 10 years ago, and I'm just curious - as you look at the field, what has changed? Do you think it's any easier today for formerly incarcerated firefighters in the state of California to find jobs in the field than it was when you were getting started?

RAMEY: Honestly, it is. I think that law helped elevate the cry-out. But I think also, too, some of the firefighters understand that folks that come out of camp have great skills. They understand what it feels like to sleep in the dirt - you know? - understand the grind of that occupation, right? And I think it's just really the stigma - getting around that - 'cause the - and the labor shortage that we have here in California has really put us in a position where we need all hands on deck, right? And, you know, we're having a program where we vet folks out. We try to pick people that's serious about the career and wanting to, you know, change they life. And they understand that firefighting is not a nine-to-five.


RAMEY: It's a lifestyle.

SUMMERS: Are there things about this career that you think might be something that's enticing to folks who have served prison sentences? I guess I'm curious - is it the adrenaline, like you were talking about? Is it the public service? Is it something else?

RAMEY: It is definitely those things - cause it all depends on the person, right? But for me, like, when you're told that you're not this, and you're not that, and you a menace to society - like, you the black sheep of the family - it's all these negative connotations that's constantly, like, bombarding you throughout your life. So when it gets flipped and say, wow, like, you're a hero - like, you're actually contributing to folks in the community. And when you walk in the store and you have your uniform on, it's one of - those are one of the best feelings I ever had in my life. And that's something that, if you never had in your life - it's powerful. It's inspiring. You feel so validated.

SUMMERS: I want to turn the conversation, if I can, to climate because we know that, as global temperatures are rising, wildfires are burning more acres of land, and they're lasting longer, which, of course, means there's a greater demand for people to fight fires. And as agencies like the U.S. Forest Service have reported, there's a chronic shortage of people who are willing to do it. So I wonder - how do you square the high demand for firefighters with the fact that there are a lot of people who want to make a career out of this and can't figure out how to do so?

RAMEY: We know that, you know, we need bodies. We need folks that can be able to get in a position to help this crisis. We got to look at all options. You know, we need to expose folks to these jobs and these occupations. So, you know - can I - I'm going to be frank.


RAMEY: And this is real. And I hate to go with this race thing, but, like, it's a lot of white, Caucasian males in the space.


RAMEY: It's a lot of separation in this job. And I think, now, if we really want to tackle this issue, we need to educate people on all levels of what this climate crisis is, and then we need to embrace and then integrate. And we need to bring everybody to the table so they can be able to help with the solution.

And starting programs, utilizing nonprofit organizations, you know, community-based organizations that have these conservation camps - right? - really, like, put money into them so they can get more exposure to this 'cause I think that once folks kind of, like, get exposed to it, then this might spark an interest in them. I'm going to be honest with you. Like, when I went to prison, I didn't know nothing about what it...


RAMEY: I remember seeing, like, Smokey the Bear on a commercial or two, and that kind of, like, just flew over my head because I didn't even know what it is. Like, when I looked at these red engines that was flying by, you know, when I was growing up, I never seen nobody that looked like me, so that wasn't even a thought, right? I didn't never think that, like - that could be me one day.

SUMMERS: That's Royal Ramey, the co-founder and CEO of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program. Royal, thank you so much.

RAMEY: You know, I appreciate you, ma'am. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Sami Yenigun is the Executive Producer of NPR's All Things Considered and the Consider This podcast. Yenigun works with hosts, editors, and producers to plan and execute the editorial vision of NPR's flagship afternoon newsmagazine and evening podcast. He comes to this role after serving as a Supervising Editor on All Things Considered, where he helped launch Consider This and oversaw the growth of the newsmagazine on new platforms.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.