Incarcerated Firefighter On Life At The Frontline

Although the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons has left fire crews short-staffed, incarcerated firefighters are continuing to battle major Bay Area blazes.

Throughout many fire seasons, low-security prisoners have served out their sentences in fire camps.

Kelley O’Bryan is among them and has been working 24 hour shifts battling fires in the LNU Lightning Complex.

"It’s chaos and then you put winds and topography into it," he told KCBS Radio. At one point over the weekend the fires shifted, forcing him and his crew to pull back. "The fire doesn’t discriminate, it’ll just eat and eat until it has nothing else to eat. So there’s definitely been a few days where the flames have gotten big and it gets hot really quick, but luckily we have a great captain and a great crew that looks out for one another."

It is hard work for little pay, but he says he’s grateful for the opportunity and relative freedom of fire camp where he lives in a more open dorm and leaves regularly in order to go to work. It is a big change from the couple of years he spent in a cell serving time for a DUI.

"You have so much time to think and think about life and think about your mistakes and what you could have done different."

While he is putting himself in harm’s way, he feels for others incarcerated at prisons near where the fires are burning, who are now breathing in wildfire smoke in addition to potential exposure to COVID.

A member of his family lost everything in the 2018 Carr fire, so he knows from experience what this work means to the community.

"It’s almost like a Hollywood moment: we’re walking out and the sun’s just setting, the smoke’s kind of settling, all the neighbors are out there for them to all start cheering and thanking us. We might be inmates and we might be in orange but they still are very thankful for all the efforts and all the hard work we put in to help protect their homes," said O’Bryan. "To be able to come out and serve the remainder of my sentence trying to make a difference - what little that might be - is a huge thing."