As the wildfires raging through much of California continue to stretch the abilities and resources of professional firefighters, assistance is coming from an unexpected source—men in the California corrections system.
Nearly 4,000 prisoners have joined forces with roughly 6,000 firefighting professionals in an attempt to tame the fires that have burned 117,960 acres so far, and threaten thousands of homes and businesses. Working for about $2 a day, the prisoners are, in the words of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bil Sessa, “in the thick of it, cutting fire lines and helping to save large areas of California.”
Jacques D’Elia served as a member of a similar fire brigade, fighting fires in the Mendocino National Forest for nearly three years between 2011 and 2013. Since released, he reflects on the time spent in a “fire camp” in an interiew with the Marshall Project.
“It was so physically demanding—but I have to say, it was an honor, a privilege, and a gift to be doing it,” D’Elia says. “Every day, we wanted to prove we were better than the professional firefighters who were there. And it made me understand how much good I could do and how proud of myself I could be at the end of the day, which never happened in prison.”
“I almost forgot I was incarcerated sometimes,” he adds. ” The staff treated you like a human, not a number.”
Instead of sitting idly in a prison cell, warehoused and quarantined from the rest of society, D’Elia was given the option to serve and be a benefit to others. And although it required him to maintain a level of physical fitness, just in order to be put in harm’s way for a very low wage, it was worth it, D’Elia says, just to remind him that he was capable of doing things other than the counterfeiting and drug-related charges that put him in prison in the first place.
“I truly believe that the fire camp saved my life,” he concludes. “I had always struggled with drugs and alcohol, and I have been sober ever since that camp, which is partly because of AA but also because it made me appreciate myself, feel as though I had a purpose in me.”
With 97 percent of incarcerated men and women eventually returning to their communities, it is important to remind them, like Jacques D’Elia, that they can “do good,” and that there is a higher purpose to serve. Through Prison Fellowship’s various reentry programs, prisoners are reminded of their infinite worth, and given the tools to be positive members of their neighborhoods and beyond. To learn more about these reentry programs, and how you or your church can be a part of these efforts, click here.