tv Fire Country Is Brought to You by Austerity, Mass Incarceration, and Climate Change
A brawny white man in prison blues stands alone, facing the panel that will decide whether to grant his parole. He apologizes to his robbery victim and pleads his case for release, but his request for parole is denied. Then his attorney offers another route out of prison: an inmate “fire camp” program run by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). “Cal Fire is hungry for inmates like you,” she says. The CBS TV drama Fire Country follows Bode Donovan as he joins the ranks of incarcerated workers who fight California’s wildfires.
Bode’s lawyer is right: Cal Fire has developed an appetite for cheap and exploited workers. In a budget request earlier this year, the department finally admitted that incarcerated workers had made up 192 of 208 hand crews directed by Cal Fire, confirming a long-held suspicion that incarcerated crews carried out the majority of the manual labor for the state’s wildfire response.
Each year, thousands of incarcerated workers put in millions of hours of work for Cal Fire with minimal compensation. Fire Country offers us a glimpse into that reality. The series features a predictable dose of unrealistic Hollywood melodrama, but it also gets many things right — particularly the working conditions that put firefighters, and indeed all California residents, at greater risk. What Cal Fire calls an extreme labor shortage is actually the result of a reliance on incarcerated workers for the past several decades. Now the situation is growing untenable: the department’s workforce is unable to keep up with worsening fire seasons caused by climate change, much less forestall future destruction.
A Baptism of Fire
After CBS announced the show this summer, Cal Fire chief Joe Tyler disavowed Fire Country in an internal communication to all staff. The department also made it clear to the network that they opposed the show, and CBS conceded slightly by changing its name from “Cal Fire” to Fire Country.
Tyler’s stated problem with the show was that it depicts the incarcerated crew as integrated with other Cal Fire personnel, including a scene where Bode punches a civilian firefighter. “The dramatization of inmate firefighters fighting members of CAL FIRE,” Tyler remarked, “is a poor reflection of the value of our Camps Program and the incredible work and leadership of our Fire Captains who supervise our hand crews.”
There is some truth to his objection. As a part of its funding structure and official division of labor, it is quite important to Cal Fire and the California Department of Corrections to maintain an official policy that forbids nonemergency encounters between these groups. However, there is a more symbolic truth to Fire Country’s depiction of incarcerated and nonincarcerated workers working side by side: they ultimately are not that different from one another, no matter what department name is on their uniform. Tyler’s objection suggests that portraying these workers as fundamentally similar is really what’s unacceptable to Cal Fire.
In Fire Country, things go awry for Bode when he is assigned to a prison fire camp in his hometown that he “left for a reason.” Many of Bode’s family members and old friends make up the local Cal Fire staff, and Bode’s and their lives intertwine with great melodramatic complexity. Through their fallouts and reunions, we see how incarcerated workers find themselves in collaboration with Cal Fire officials and personnel — and in tension with the rural communities that rely on their labor while barely tolerating them as convicted criminals.
Bode’s story is not impossible: a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that many of the counties with the highest incarceration rates were in the northernmost region of the state, which is also prone to wildfires. But it is unlikely, since more than half of those incarcerated in California come from urban areas in the southern and central parts of the state, and more than three-quarters are people of color — unlike Bode, who is white.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t take pains to realistically develop other incarcerated characters, even though incarcerated firefighters have increasingly spoken out about their experiences, offering writers plenty of grist for the mill. The storyline of one such character, Freddy, played by W. Tré Davis, could be used to explore how people of color from Los Angeles County experience the program. Fire Country instead opts for the predictable “mighty whitey” trope, focusing on the resilience of a white character as he endures a baptism of fire in a hostile and unfamiliar environment.
This is not to say the story is conjured out of thin air. The actor who plays Bode, Max Thieriot, is also a cowriter of the series. Thierot grew up in Sonoma County, about sixty miles north of San Francisco, and has remarked on seeing incarcerated fire crews throughout his life. Just like mass incarceration and wildfires themselves, incarcerated firefighters are an accepted part of life in California.
In developing Fire Country, Thieriot teamed up with Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, who wrote for and produced ten seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. The latter was a forerunner in the first-responder melodrama genre, and Fire Country follows in its footsteps.
Grey’s Anatomy became a hit in a time when hospitals were becoming increasingly corporate and consolidated, and the faults in the American health care system were getting impossible to ignore. Viewers who were uneasy about the depersonalized and inaccessible medical care in their own lives could fantasize about beautiful doctors faced with impossible decisions, rather than an impersonal machine designed to churn through patients for profit.
Likewise, Fire Country taps into the profound anxiety that many Californians have about the state’s worsening wildfire problem and its cascading health and ecological effects. The past decade has seen fifteen of the twenty most destructive fires in California history. Smoke inhalation and wildfire-related health issues caused surges in emergency-room visits in 2020. Because climate change underlies the wildfire problem, the fires will continue to worsen, causing increasing problems both for people living in fire-prone areas and for the rest of us who live downwind.
To many Californians, peace of mind is contingent on daily denial of this reality. This makes it the natural topic for TV drama, which allows people to work through their deepest fears, anxieties, and forbidden desires in a controlled environment, with the near guarantee of a happy resolution. Bode, his crewmates, and Cal Fire staff are heroes, with the wildfires serving as their apocalyptic battlefields. These charismatic firefighters with superhuman abilities (and luck) seem to always succeed in extinguishing fires, even when things appear out of control. The story is soothing to the climate-anxious mind.
But as with the crisis in medical care, the environmental catastrophe facing California will not be resolved by a few brave individuals. Ecologists and fire management experts agree that a wide range of labor-intensive efforts must be undertaken across the state to mitigate the risks of wildfires. These include more year-round controlled burns, better land use and conservation practices, and the rejuvenation of indigenous fire management, all of which require more laborers than have ever worked in forestry and fire in California’s history.
Hiring more employees is necessary, but even that isn’t sufficient to solve the problem. Cal Fire’s employees are notoriously overworked and underpaid. For nonincarcerated workers, the agency’s entry-level pay is just below $50,000 a year — for a work schedule of sixteen-hour days for fourteen days in a row, combined with smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion. The combination of poor pay and difficult working conditions made it hard for the department to attract and retain workers, causing drastic understaffing. Creating altogether better working conditions for exponentially more workers is the only way to implement the fire-management practices recommended by experts.
Sadly, the state’s approach to funding firefighters and conservation efforts has been remarkably sluggish compared to its energetic investment in prisons and corrections.
Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire
In the series pilot, the fictional Cal Fire unit chief delivers an impassioned speech to convince his superiors that he needs better equipment for his station. “You all don’t remember the Hanley fire but I do,” he says. “Fifty-six thousand acres burned, nineteen fatalities, two of which were firefighters. That area has not burned since then. This will happen again. The question is what are we going to do about it?”
The chief’s appeal expresses a sentiment shared by most Californians: that the state government has not invested nearly enough money in wildfire management or prevention. Cal Fire has only 10,513 employees, many of whom are seasonal. After the worst fire season in California history, it was allocated only 0.7% of the 2021 budget.
In stark contrast to the state’s neglect of fire and forestry, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) underwent unprecedented growth between 1980 and 2000, increasing its share of the state budget from 2 to 8 percent. During this period, the CDCR built twenty-three new prisons and grew its workforce to fifty-five thousand, making it the state’s largest agency.
In operation since the 1940s, California’s prison fire camp program became the lynchpin of rehabilitation in the CDCR in the mid-twentieth century. The CDCR abandoned its commitment to rehabilitation in the late ’70s, but the fire camp program kept growing. Between 1998 and 2018, the program maintained an incarcerated workforce of 3,000 to 4,500 people. The number of program participants only dropped below 3,000 in 2019, when federal mandates to reduce the overcrowding in California prisons, combined with new sentencing reforms, reduced the number of prisoners eligible for fire camp.
Since then, Cal Fire has been telling anyone who will listen about its shortage of manpower. To its credit, Fire Country realistically portrays the situation faced by Cal Fire’s overworked employees. In the second episode, the civilian firefighters and incarcerated workers tackle a dry lightning storm and ensuing spot fires, which stretch their resources thin across the county and the state. The Cal Fire chief repeats a classic Cal Fire refrain. “There’s a staffing shortage,” he warns his crew. “A lot of long shifts and nobody’s going home.”
As Cal Fire’s incarcerated-worker program has gained media visibility in recent years, questions have arisen about its ethicality, whether it serves to rehabilitate incarcerated people, and whether it offers any long-term employment opportunities. Those questions are legitimate, but they sit uncomfortably alongside the fact that many incarcerated firefighters are enthusiastic about working for Cal Fire. I conducted interviews with incarcerated firefighters who were active during the 2020 season, and found a general eagerness to participate in the program, owing in large part to the fact that the wage rate of fire camp participants is higher than most other prison jobs in California. Compared to minimum wage, $2 an hour on an active fire seems laughable, but compared to $0.50 an hour, it’s considerable. Incarcerated workers’ willingness to fight deadly fires for $2 an hour reflects how miserable most prison jobs are, and how bad prison must be for incarcerated people to compete to become firefighters.
Cal Fire needs workers, and incarcerated Californians want a chance to escape prison and make some money. On the surface, then, the Cal Fire incarcerated firefighter program makes sense for everyone. But in reality, these jobs should pay people to work in firefighting with dignity, not in a state of hyperexploitation or perpetual precarity. In order to tackle the state’s interlocking problems, California must grow and transform its firefighting workforce while also dismantling its infrastructure of mass incarceration. Fire Country stops short of calling for transformative action, but it puts incarcerated workers in the spotlight and asks its audience to consider the ramifications of these compounding crises.
Abby Cunniff is a PhD student in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The new issue of Jacobin is out now. Subscribe today and get a yearlong print and digital subscription.