New California Law Opens Doors for Formerly Incarcerated Firefighters


Inmate firefighters arrive at the scene of the Water fire, about 20 miles from the Apple fire in Whitewater, California on August 2, 2020. Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

Incarcerated people who fight wildfires in California will be better able to work as firefighters after returning home under a new law.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill Friday, which will allow former inmate firefighters to petition courts to expunge their records and waive parole time — removing barriers to getting jobs fighting fires professionally.

Formerly incarcerated people were barred from obtaining EMT licenses, effectively preventing them from advancing in careers as professional firefighters despite their obvious qualifications.

Inmate firefighters perform life-threatening work alongside professional fire crews while receiving just dollars per day.

Michael Gerbe told NPR he expects the new law will change his life.

Gerbe, who was convicted of robbery when he was 19, worked to contain the Thomas Fire, the Mendocino Complex Fire, the Ferguson Fire, the Carr Fire, and the Camp Fire in Paradise.

Now that he will be eligible to obtain an EMT license, Gerbe said, “I could be of more help, I could be of more assistance.

So the news is huge, and it’s not only huge for me, it’s huge for the community I serve, because with me being an EMT, I could do more for the community that I serve.”

For a deeper dive:

NPR, AP, KPBS, San Diego Voice, Witness LA, KQED, Fresno Bee, KCBS Radio, KTLA, Earther, CNN, CBS, NBC, Vox, The Guardian, Axios, Business Insider, The Hill, KESQ, Malibu Times, ABC7; Commentary: San Francisco Chronicle, Sarah Shourd op-ed

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for daily Hot News.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter