Incarcerated juveniles, mostly Black and Brown, are being used to fight wildfires across the U.S. for as little as $1.00 per hour, Atmos reports, as experts doubt the justice and restorative and rehabilitative efficacy of such programs. The use of prison labor, rooted in slavery with a specific carve-out in the 13th Amendment, to fight wildfires in the U.S. is not new, but demand for wildland firefighters is growing as climate change worsens and lengthens the fire season.
Though Ezekiel Nishiyama did not ultimately become a firefighter, he credits his year at the Pine Grove Conservation Camp near Sacramento with helping put him on the path to his current role as a policy and community organizer with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
But despite anecdotes like Nishiyama’s, “there’s very little evidence” that juvenile firefighting camps reduce recidivism, Carlee Purdum, a research assistant professor at Texas A&M, told Atmos. Purdum’s research also “suggest[ed] that incarcerated people are exploited by” another incarcerated juvenile firefighting program in North Carolina. The need for follow-up after release goes beyond recidivism, as experts also warn of the serious and little-studied (especially in young wildland firefighters) hazards posed by wildfire smoke, namely the ultra-fine particulate matter that can carry toxins deep into the lungs and the effects of which do not become apparent until years later. (Atmos; Wildfire weather: LA Times; Climate Signals background: Wildfires)