(CNN)When a roaring wildfire approached Janet and Dan Condron's door in Santa Rosa, California, in 2017, they were certain their home would be destroyed. The retired couple decided to evacuate.
Prison inmates are fighting California's fires, but are often denied firefighting jobs after their release
That's when an unexpected firefighting crew appeared on their cul-du-sac and got to work, creating a break in the fire that ultimately saved the Condrons' home.
These firefighters weren't from the fire department — they were from a nearby correctional facility.
"I don't think we would still have our homes if it wasn't for those 26 individuals," said Dan Condron.
California employs about 3,100 inmates as part of the state's Conservation Camp program, which provides critical support to state and federal agencies responding to emergencies such as wildfires, floods and other disasters. About 2,150 of those inmates are authorized to fight fires.
As multiple fires rage across California, the role firefighting inmates play is coming under renewed scrutiny. Despite their extensive training and heroic efforts in times of crisis, these inmates are often denied roles in fire departments after they're released because of their felony records.
"These inmates go through the training and then they want to go on and pursue additional training and that door is closed to them," says Mark Farouk, a spokesman for California Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, who earlier this year introduced a bill that seeks to ease restrictions on ex-convicts. The bill has stalled in the state government, but may be considered again in January, Farouk says.
Currently, most fire departments require candidates to have an EMT license, which Farouk says is extremely difficult to acquire with a felony conviction. Reyes's bill aims to provide a path for former inmates to become professional firefighters after their release.
Under the Conservation Camp program, which is jointly run by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Los Angeles Fire Department, only low-security prisoners with a record of good behavior are eligible.
Those who volunteer receive the same entry-level training that the state's seasonal firefighters receive. The inmates work long hours, earning between $2.90 and $5.12 a day, and an additional $1 an hour when they're battling fires. They can also earn reduced sentences. The wages are higher than most other prison jobs, but come with significantly greater risk. Since 1983, at least six incarcerated firefighters have died on duty.
"I could be sitting behind the [prison] wall right now, dealing with all the drama that that entails, or I could be out here helping save this part of California because of this disaster," former inmate firefighter Daniel Erickson told NPR last year.
The need for firefighters will only grow as the climate crisis makes wildfires in the Golden State more intense.