On their third day on the job fighting the California Rim Fire, Alan Jackson and his team were near Groveland, a small town just outside Yosemite National Park in central California, cutting containment lines.
"It was so smoky nobody could see nobody," says Jackson. "You couldn't see where you were driving."
Using the equivalent of garden tools—chainsaws, axes, and hoes—the crew scraped the ground surrounding the base camp to bare soil, creating a barrier between the fire and the unburned brush and trees, desperately trying to contain a fire that has already burned more than 300 square miles of land and is only about 30 percent contained. (See "Pictures: Battling the Yosemite Rim Fire")
As a kid, Jackson, who is 31, thought he would become a firefighter or cop. Instead, he ended up a prison inmate, sentenced to eight years for first-degree burglary and second-degree robbery. Ironically, thanks to a program partnered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), Jackson is realizing his early dream. Instead of spending time behind bars, he's spent the last four years at a CDCR fire camp, where he learned his current trade. (Related: "Why Big, Intense Wildfires Are the New Normal.")
Of the 4,840 personnel battling the Rim Fire, more than 550 are inmates. "They're the work horses," says firefighter specialist Jason Toshack of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
The inmates cut lines alongside the elite "hot shot" civilian crews, explains Toshack, who has worked with the program for more than six years. With miles and miles of lines to be cut, and "hot shot" crews in short supply, fighting the fire without the help of inmates would be "scrambling, to say the least."