California — Tracey Johnson wields a chain saw, tosses branches and rakes brush under the punishing sun and a heavy pack as smoke from a raging wildfire looms over the mountains nearby.
It’s grueling work, but it beats staring at the four walls of a prison cell.
“You have a taste of freedom,” declared Johnson, who said she’s serving five years for possessing, selling and transporting cocaine. “And you get respect.”
Johnson is one of 28 female convicts working the front lines of the nine-day-old wildfire roaring through Los Padres National Forest in Southern California’s Santa Barbara County.
They’re part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s conservation camp program in which 4,500 nonviolent inmates are trained to fight wildfires and do forestry work on public lands. About 350 are women.
Wildfire-plagued states such as California and Arizona have long tapped minimum-security prisoners as firefighting labor during the intense summer fire season. Arizona also has a female inmate crew.
It’s work that more than a few men would shy from.
The so-called hand crews trek into chaparral and backwoods, sometimes hiking miles in mountainous terrain, to clear containment lines so flames have no fuel to feed on. They use axes, chain saws, picks and rakes to fell trees, chop limbs and remove weeds, often toiling in smoke-laden air and intense heat.
The only difference between regular crews and inmates is that the prisoners cannot handle the torches used for setting backfires.
“They work exceptionally hard,” said Capt. Mark Seim of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “The benefit to the state is just huge in terms of the man hours provided.”
The state has even hired some former inmates, both male and female, he said.
The women do the same work as their male counterparts, and while they’re not as strong or fast, they’re more precise, said Lt. Angela R. Alexander, supervisor of the Goleta fire crew.
“We have cleaner lines that’s what they tell us,” said Kristi Smith of Chico, inmate boss of the crew that fanned out Tuesday along a ridge in Venadito Canyon to widen a fire line on the blaze’s western flank. “We are going to be perfect.”
Dressed in orange jumpsuits, helmets and thick boots, the women acknowledged the job is hard but said they’re grateful for it. They earn $1 an hour and two days off their sentence for every day worked, double the time off that a regular prison job would get them.
Many also feel they’re atoning for their crimes.
“I made some bad choices, so I like being part of something positive. I’m productive,” said Tracy Violet of San Francisco, who said she’s 16 months into a nine-year sentence for forgery. She hopes to reduce that to three years with credit from fighting fires.
Inmates have to request fire duty. The conservation camps do not take violent criminals, sex offenders or arsonists. Misbehavior means being sent back to an institutional prison.
The women are mostly slender with slight builds, but they tone up quickly with training and the work.
“I’ve never been in better shape in my life,” said Smith, who said she’s done seven years of a 10-year sentence for check-bouncing fraud.
Supervisors said the female crews are generally easier to handle than the men and have fewer discipline problems. Escapees of both sexes are rare and are usually caught.
“Women are more supportive of each other, sort of a buddy system,” Alexander said.
“They’re more appreciative of small things. They like shampoo, lotion, soap. They were ecstatic the other day because their clothes came back from the laundry with the smell of Downy. Do you think men would notice that?”