The one thing to know about inmate fire crews

We came across a powerful visual right away when we drove into the Electra Fire on Tuesday: an exhausted group of firefighters taking a nap in the dirt.

I know firefighters would rather be seen working than napping, but I didn't think twice about filming it. Their resting bodies lined up on the shoulder of the road told a story too powerful for words.

They barely stirred as we drove past.

Roasting in the sun in long sleeves and pants.

Full sunlight blasting their dirty eyelids. 

All sound asleep.

I considered my wording and sent out this tweet:
The comments were a cavalcade of "thank yous," "God blessses," and "hard working heroes."

Rightfully so.

Still, I braced myself. I'd deliberately refrained from describing the group as anything other than "a hand crew," but surely the Internet would soon notice their Nomex was orange. 

When bad things happen to inmates, the comments can often turn vile. I'll never forget the cheering I saw online when people died in a prison van crash my station covered in Colorado.

So when people eventually did start to notice, I was deeply grateful to see the comments stay positive.

Some folks even pointed out that these firefighters are being paid far less to perform the same exhausting and risky work as others, a topic certainly worthy of discussion.

But the point I wanted to make was far simpler: All of the humans who rush in to fight wildfires push themselves to their limits in service of others.

Hard enough to make them nap in the dirt.

It made me think back to something I learned in my early years covering wildfires.

I'd asked an inmate crew supervisor a question, trying to tease out how they might be different than all the other hand crews.

I don't remember exactly what I asked him, but I'll never forget his reply.

He paused for just a breath and gave me a look that conveyed his next words would speak wisdom and truth.

"They're firefighters," he told me.

That is the one thing to know about inmate crews.


So thanks, Internet, for surprising me with an abundance of kindness on this.

And to every firefighter who ever naps in the dirt: may the Earth nourish and refresh you.




Here's some of our coverage from the Electra Fire on Tuesday: