Use of private firefighters and inmates in California wildfires raises serious questions

There is good reason to fear that the growing use of private firefighters and inmates could be seen as a way to avoid funding public services at the level required to respond to climate change.

Ottawa (21 Nov. 2018) — Until recently there have been two beliefs about firefighting that were almost universal in Canada and the United States. One was that eEveryone, regardless of income, was entitled to the same level of protection. And the other was that because of the dangers firefighters face, they were entitled to decent pay and benefits.

Some of what we are seeing during the recent California wildfires is a threat to both beliefs. Private firefighters are being used to provide additional protection for the homes of the wealthy. Prison inmates are being used when wildland firefighter positions are vacant — and being paid $1 per hour.

The severity of the recent wildfires in California meant that all available resources were needed to fight them. However, there is good reason to fear that the growing use of private firefighters and inmates could be seen as a way to avoid funding public services at the level required to respond to climate change.

California fires most serious in recent history of the state

The wildfires in California are the most serious in the recent history of the state. In addition to the tragic loss of life, many more people have had their homes or even entire communities destroyed.  

As with some recent fires in Canada, climate change is widely seen to have contributed to both the number and the severity of wildfires. Without action to control emissions responsible for climate change, wildfires will continue to increase in severity.  

Increasing use of private firefighters

As an article in The Atlantic explains, one response to the growing severity of wildfires has been the increased use of private firefighters. Insurance companies are paying for private firefighters to protect homes from wildfires and to reduce what they have to pay out in claims. While private firefighters say they protect the homes of middle-income earners as well as those of the wealthy,  insurance companies are paying them, so their priority will be where the financial losses to the company will be greatest — and that is going to mean expensive homes.

The article also mentions that the growing number of private firefighters is occurring at the same time the Forest Service budget has been cut. This is not surprising. When public services are cut, those with the money to do so often turn to private services. The problem is that, contrary to what the privatization industry claims, this doesn’t take the pressure off public services. Instead, when the well-off use public services less, it triggers another round of cuts.

Prison inmates paid $1 / hour to fight fires

Another California program that has gained attention recently is the use of prison inmates to fight forest fires. Inmates are paid $1 per hour, a fraction of what professional firefighters make. There is a concern that programs for inmates that are intended to provide work experience and help with rehabilitation will end up being a way to push down wages. The fact that in the last year it has been reported that 15 per cent of positions at Cal Fire are vacant due to low wages adds to those concerns.

Climate change increases demands on public services

In addition to the loss of life and destruction of homes, more severe wildfires and other extreme weather caused by climate change mean more demands are placed on public services. The increased hours wildland firefighters are working is just the tip of the iceberg. Paramedics and hospital workers are helping pick up the pieces. Highway maintenance workers are having to do more to maintain roads.

Those demands on public services push up the cost. There are 2 ways we can deal with that cost: we can ask that everyone pay their share through a fair tax system or we can have one level of service for the wealthy, and another for everyone else. If private firefighters or inmates replacing public sector workers becomes more common, we will be headed down the second path.  


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE