Formerly incarcerated firefighters find purpose in private sector, thanks to nonprofit

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The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program trains formerly incarcerated firefighters to fight California’s wildfires. Photo courtesy of FFRP.

The Washburn Fire, which is currently burning at Yosemite National Park, is a reminder that wildfires can spark anytime in super dry California, and tackling those blazes is tough work, especially for firefighters who are incarcerated. And for various legal and cultural reasons, it’s difficult to be able to continue that work after their sentences.

That’s where the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) comes in. It’s a California-based nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated people find permanent firefighting jobs in the private sector. It also helps recruits obtain housing, mental health care, and other social services.

“I have lived experience, being a person who was formerly incarcerated as a firefighter within California. … Loving the job, I wanted to do this [firefighting] once I came home,” says co-founder Brandon Smith.

But bureaucracy got in the way, until unprecedented fires in California in 2014 meant that it was all hands on deck for firefighters — criminal record or not. 

Having proved his mettle in the field, he wanted to help others find a way in too. “What do I look like navigating my way out the maze and not providing a pathway for other people?” Smith asks. “That's where FFRP came from.”

Now with backers like Google and The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, FFRP is able to offer more training and get more people on the frontlines fighting California’s seemingly endless wildfires.

His great hope is that people leaving the criminal justice system will get increased options and opportunities. “Even though California is so progressive, as of now, formerly incarcerated people are not allowed to go work in what we call municipal agencies. So I can't be a firefighter in the LA City Fire Department because of my previous challenges in life.”

Given the work incarcerated inmates do for the state, Smith says they should get more chances to reenter society upon release. “Formerly incarcerated people deserve an opportunity to support their families, themselves and their communities.”



  • Brandon Smith - Executive Director, The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program