Local

How chainsaws and fire provided redemption to a California inmate

Inmate firefighters walk along Highway 120 as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. Fire crews are clearing brush and setting sprinklers to protect two groves of giant sequoias as a massive week-old wildfire rages along the remote northwest edge of Yosemite National Park.
Inmate firefighters walk along Highway 120 as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. Fire crews are clearing brush and setting sprinklers to protect two groves of giant sequoias as a massive week-old wildfire rages along the remote northwest edge of Yosemite National Park.
Jae C. Hong/AP
Inmate firefighters walk along Highway 120 as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. Fire crews are clearing brush and setting sprinklers to protect two groves of giant sequoias as a massive week-old wildfire rages along the remote northwest edge of Yosemite National Park.
Fire Chasers
Netflix


Listen to story

05:48
Download this story 5.0MB

Back in the day, there used to be a fire season in California – warm, dry months when wildfires were much more likely to occur. 

Now, thanks to changes in weather patterns and vegetation, fire season is thought to last 365 days a year. Throughout California, thousands of men and women dedicate their lives to battling these blazes. A new documentary series on Netflix called "Fire Chasers" looks at what it takes to get up close and personal with the flames.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRX_BbE6L18

"Fire Chasers" profiles photographers struck by the visual awe fires leave in their wake; professional firefighters who can't imagine a career without the huge adrenaline surges; and a group of women who discover the trade of firefighting while serving time behind bars. 

One of those women is Bri Cody, who hadn't heard about the inmate firefighting program until she was incarcerated at the Central California Women's facility in Chowchilla. 

Cody spoke with KPCC's Alex Cohen. Below are some of the highlights of that chat:

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REACTION WHEN YOU HEARD ABOUT THE INMATE FIREFIGHTING PROGRAM?

When I first heard about it, I was instantly intrigued. Anything to get outside of the bars and barbed wires is very exciting. I talked to my counselor about what my options were. I found out all the camps are in beautiful areas and you have a sense of freedom that you definitely don’t get in a prison setting.

THERE MAY BE A LOT OF OUTDOOR BEAUTY. BUT THE TRAINING IS ABSOLUTELY GRUELING. CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT THAT PROCESS WAS LIKE FOR YOU?

We were expected to exercise vigorously eight hours a day, every day, Monday through Friday. That went on for about a month. And then I got tested. A test out is when we have to walk 9 laps (3 miles) on the track with a 65 pound vest under a certain amount of time. From there, we were expected to do pretty crazy hikes and in brand new fire boots, it’s not very fun. But if we passed all of that we were allowed to go to camp.

FIREFIGHTING IS DANGEROUS AND YET YOU SEEM TO THRIVE ON IT. IN THE SHOW WE HEAR YOU TALK ABOUT HOW YOU’D LIKE TO BECOME A SAWYER  - AN EXPERT IN SAWS. YOU SAY “I LOVE THE POWER OF THE CHAINSAW, I LOVE THE SOUND AND IT’S LIKE I JUST FEEL LIKE A SUPERHERO.” WHAT IS THE APPEAL FOR YOU OF THE CHAINSAW?

The chainsaw for me takes me to this place where I feel at peace. I don’t know if that’s scary to think a chainsaw does that for me. But it is the sound, it’s the power I feel from that chainsaw. And I just fell in love with it. And that’s when I fell in love with firefighting when I got my hands on that chainsaw.

IN THE SHOW, IT SEEMS LIKE THE MALE FIREFIGHTERS WERE ON THE FRONT LINES WHEREAS THE WOMEN WERE DOING MORE OF THE SUPPORT WORK. DID IT FEEL THAT WAY TO YOU AS YOU DID THE WORK?

We did everything that not only the (inmate) men are doing but the professional firefighters are doing. I think the reason the show didn’t capture that to the full potential is that there are so many more male firefighters and male camps … There are just too many firefighters out there compared to women.

A LOT OF FIRE DEPARTMENTS ARE TRYING TO RECRUIT MORE WOMEN. YOU ARE NOW WORKING AS A RECRUITER FOR THE CALIFORNIA CONSERVATION CORPS. WHAT’S IT LIKE TRYING TO RECRUIT WOMEN?

It’s been really difficult to find women. I can find ten men a day, no problem. But for every 50 men I bring on,   I probably only sign on one or two women. I’m trying other strategies. I’m trying to go after athletic women, so I’m targeting sporting events and colleges. But there are days where I get really discouraged.

MAKE THE PITCH TO WOMEN LISTENING NOW. WHY BECOME A FIREFIGHTER?

When I first got out to my first fire, I hated it. But as I progressed, every night before I went to sleep, it was amazing. I felt for the first time in my life that I was actually repaying a debt that I did owe society based on my past actions and decisions.

So this is what I want to tell women – give it a shot. The empowerment that we as women can get, the potential to feel that is so amazing. Give it a shot. Find out what you are made of.

To learn more about the California Conservation Corps and fire crews, click here.