Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Being a Prison Firefighter Taught Me to Save Lives

 Chivis Martinez  TY Gus Borderland Beat Marshall Project

Note: This is not a post about the narco war, so if that upsets you simply do not read the post.  This is a post about the integral inmate firefighter force that has long supplemented CalFire in fighting those nasty wild fires of California, which seemingly now has no season but rather appears most of the year.

My son just completed a 40-day deployment in NorCal.  

He texted me on Labor Day week saying “Hey Ma, I will be off by Labor day how about I go for a visit and BBQ?”  I was excited, we do not live close to each other, when he travels to me it is a treat. But that never happened.  He had no replacement.  In fact he is a Public Information Officer, but this time he was on the fireline.

These historical record-breaking fires, of which our Yaqui was in the middle of, were different in many aspects, one is the CalFire force was without their usual inmate FF force.  Because of a prison outbreak of Covid-19.

Many of you probably didn’t know about inmate FF’s.  They are terrific and are fireline qualified fire fighters doing the same work as FFs.  They are an invaluable resource.  They go into the work knowing they may die, and knowing they will never be hired in a fire department. 

In the last three years 3 inmate  FFs died in action.   There is a bill that will allow inmates to be hired as long as their convictions are not of certain types such as violent crimes.  I support that bill for many reasons.   Read one man’s story below….Chivis

There’s a full-fledged firehouse equipped with engines at San Quentin Prison. To work for the department, which serves the facility and over 100 units of mostly employee housing on the grounds, prisoners have to interview with the fire chief and captains and go before a panel composed of the warden and other staff. You have to be a good fit and know how to work in a team. And they only consider people who have a record of good behavior within the last five years—that means few or no disciplinary write-ups or infractions.

You cannot have been convicted of arson, sex offenses, murder or attempted escape, and you have to be at the lowest security level. When I applied in 2016, I had five years left in my sentence. Dozens of guys were trying to get into the firehouse, but they only take nine to 12 at a time. I thought I was in great shape—I was on the San Quentin A’s baseball team, and I played football. But I was nowhere close to being in firefighting shape. We had to be able to hike more than a mile with a 75-pound hose on our backs. I didn’t think I was going to make it at first.

It wasn’t really the act of firefighting that made me want to join. Initially, I just wanted the job because I would get to sleep in a room by myself, eat good and train dogs. Plus those guys just look cool. Who as a kid didn’t think firefighters were awesome?

Joining the department was also an opportunity to escape the politics and culture of the prison. I wouldn't be confined to a cell or have COs hanging over my shoulder all the time; I would be treated like a human being. 

After years of incarceration, I was sold.

I didn’t expect it, but firefighting would be the most influential thing I’d ever taken part in. Being a member of the department meant being available 24/7 for calls inside and outside the prison. On the outside, we had house fires, medical emergencies, car accidents and grass fires. Inside we responded to cell fires, provided CPR and transported bodies from housing units to the hospital. In my nearly three years on the job, I did CPR almost 50 times. Only four people lived.

The sad truth is that San Quentin has an aging population of people either dying of old age or giving up. There were suicides and a fentanyl outbreak. Sometimes we’d get five overdoses in a week. In 2017, almost 20 people died of various causes. I did CPR on every one of them.

On one call, a gentleman had fallen off his bunk and hit his head. He went through three rounds of CPR and two with the defibrillator. On the third round of CPR, I felt him gasp for breath and I could feel his heartbeat underneath my hands. I said to my captain, “Holy shit, I think he's breathing!” He lived and was back on the yard two days later. I can't explain what it feels like to have someone come back to life under your hands. There's nothing like it.

Although the program has been in effect since WW2, it wasn’t until the 60s that the program became comprehensive.

Matthew's  story:

Matthew with his son

Matthew is one of three killed fighting fires in the past 17 months.

Matthew Beck was trying to turn his life around

Supporters of the program say the work that inmate firefighters do during their sentence can help them stay out of prison.

Williams, Beck's mom, said her son was trying to do just that.

As a child Beck was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety, according to Williams. He later began self-medicating with drugs.

"Matthew was a heroin addict," Williams said.

Beck spent years on and off in drug treatment facilities and county lockups after several arrests,  she said.

On May 30, 2014, he pleaded no contest to one count of second-degree burglary and was sentenced to six years in state prison.

He served time at the Sierra Conservation Center in Tuolumne County and Ironwood State Prison in Riverside County.

It was at Ironwood that Beck wanted to change.

"He said he wanted to get out of there. He wanted to turn his life around. He really wanted to try to get into the firefighting program," Williams said from her home in Culver City, with her 5-year-old grandson in the background.

Beck trained at the Antelope Conservation Camp in Susanville and was sent to the Alder Conservation Camp in Klamath, spending a total of six months in the inmate firefighting program.

"It gave him a sense of purpose," Williams said.

While in the program, Beck called his family regularly.

"He told his son, his daddy was a hero," she said.

No honor comes from California

On May 24, 2017, a 3,000-pound tree fell on Beck, as he was clearing brush in the community of Orleans in the Six Rivers National Forest.

He was 26 years old.

Cal Fire's preliminary review of the incident — known as a "green sheet" — found that a 105-year-old Douglas fir tipped over, struck Beck in the head and he fell into a ditch.

State fire officials said that Beck could not hear a Cal Fire captain yell for him to get out of the way because of the sound of chainsaws.

The green sheet also said that the radio used by the supervisor of Beck's crew was unable to connect with emergency officials in the moments after the tree fell. And it pointed out that the 105-year-old tree was noticed by fire officials before the incident.

Beck died at the scene of blunt-force trauma to his head and trunk, according to an autopsy by the Humboldt County Coroner's Office.

"The branch which had struck the decedent was of considerable size," the autopsy report states.

California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) launched an investigation into Beck's death. Four months later the agency cleared Cal Fire and CDCR of wrongdoing in the incident and declined to issue any citations.

Beck had been slated to be released from prison five months after the time of the accident.

Williams said she had adopted her grandson, Wesley, with the assumption that Beck would return that October — he would have been integral in raising the boy and be one of the family's breadwinners.

"I totally counted on my son helping me with his son," Williams said. "At the very least, having an extra person available so I could run errands, having a male figure in my grandson's life," she said.

"It's hard. Worth every moment, but still very hard."

Williams said she had a tough time working out logistics to get Beck's body and learned only recently that she could gain some workers' compensation from her son's death. But she's having to battle bureaucratic roadblocks to get benefits.

Beck's name was not on his son's birth certificate because he was in jail when the child was born, according to Williams, which is making it difficult to recoup any money.

Matthew Beck, Frank Anaya and Anthony Colacino died while working or training as one of thousands of inmate firefighters who help the state battle wildfires.

California Firefighters Memorial has no plans to honor them.

This weekend, though, Beck and Anaya's name will be added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Maryland. The U.S. Forest Service plans to honor them along with  eight other firefighters who died in the line of duty in California last year.

The national memorial, though, has honored several fallen inmate firefighters in the last eight years.

For Beck's mom, it was a pleasant surprise to hear her son would be honored by the group.

"They are flying us out," Williams said. "Firefighters are picking us up from the airport and taking us to the hotel. They have been very kind."

Inmate firefighters have become integral to the state's battles against wildfires.

For example, state prison officials have emphasized that thousands of prison firefighters helped California battle some of the largest wildfires on record this summer and last fall.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which runs the inmate firefighting program, says it saves the state $100 million a year.

Note: in September the bill passed allowing inmate firefighters to seek a career in FF once out of prison


  1. Glad your doing goood and changed your life.
    I was at La Cima but now retired.

    1. I was there in 1973. We had a crew boss with the longest legs I have ever seen. I thought I would never forget his name but I have. He walked us half to death.

    2. 3:20 i am sure he walked you while you were all wearing the shortest of the short shorts...
      I also hope dead prisoner firefighters killed on duty or training have insurance, at least, along with the respect.

  2. These guys commit crimes in society and then complain about not getting treated like human beings when they get locked up!

    Animals are in cages for a reason!

    Why is this article on here?

    1. Relax Karen , “si no te gusta No te la comas”

    2. @11:14 AM: Gee, Karen... I bet mommy always had those colorful Frootloops and milkii for you.... and 'member the happyfaces? ..and, ..and..when you waddled across the finish line everyone before you cheered. BTW: My brother inlaw was a prison firefighter in the 70s... he was proud he served...and we were proud he did..When he came out of the joint he was a changed man for the good.
      BTW: Great article!!!

  3. Thank you for sharing your story and for all your hard work. This is the most inspirational story I've heard in a long long time.

  4. Narco related...Chivis the big Dolan fire still burning in Big Sur, California was allegedly started by arson from a Paisa. From interrogation the dude said that he was in a remote area growing mota and set the fire to cover up 5 bodies that were killed. Authorities have confirmed cartel grows in these remote beautiful forested areas and speedboats observed in parts of the central coast away from populated areas.

    It sounds like a conspiracy but Antifas were caught setting fires in Oregon so these anarchists can also be active in Califas.

    I'm cool w these prisoners getting a second chance unless they're a chomo.

    Sal the Stockbroker

    1. Thank you! do you have a link to something I can read?

    2. PS i thought it was BS about antifa also until 2 were arrested.

  5. As a retired fire captain I can tell you the Cal Fire inmate crews were an integral part to many successful wildland engagements I was a part of, both the male and female crews.

    1. yes its amazing the work do. for those that dont know to qualify for fire camp you have to have to have non violent offenses these arent hardcore convicts on the fire line. these are guys that would normally be in a low security prison with no cells and have Tv and tablets and things anyways. It was an amazing and well deserved thing when they signed that order that allows them to be waved of their felony and be able to join as a firefighter when they get out ( they are fully trained and are active on the line and when they get out they cant join a firefighter crew because they have a felony on their record which disqualified them and its crazy) i never understood why they didnt have an exemption for them

  6. dont know why i waste my time as you rarely if ever publish my opine, but dont forget ... since you were seeking a nexus ...the vast majority of american inmates got their "criminal apprentice's" via the 2 strikes of being poor and being victims of our 80+ yr. "catnip prohibition" ... the 3'rd strike for many; being born of color ...

  7. Just want to put in that I served 10 years maximum security prion for trafficking. Was busted in the mid 80’s with a lot of product. Inside I made a clear objective to mind by business and attempt to stay out of trouble. Trouble was at every turn but somehow I took a class in Business Software and Computer Programming. I learned to code inside and with many computer languages. As of this day i work with a Forbes 100 company and have achieved upper management (executive) status. Before being hired I informed my “future” employers honestly what I did, where I was and the second chance was forthcoming. 25 years later I am still here, never was in trouble again and made several gains for the company. It is all about the second chance so for those who maybe are in prison there are other ways. Funny, if I stayed doing what I was doing I would be dead. Now I have a wonderful loving family, legal money beyond my wildest dreams and I am in need of nothing. I try to pay it forward and help others as I know what despair really is. Been there done that won’t repeat it. Good luck to all of those that can break the shell and move on to honesty and integrity. I do not judge people, I was a lucky one who made it out.

    1. 💖 LOVE This! Sadly a large number of society are stuck in 'old' thinking.

      Views are changing. Hearing personal stories helps. Funny how when it hits close to home, a son, a granddaughter ...etc, then the minds of a person quickly pivots.

      Doing the same thing, ends in same results. Making convicts a part of society, into someone who can earn respect, changes lives and impacts recidivism rates.

    2. Sad to say your story is a success but for what? 1% or 2% of the inmates? I commend you for turning your life around and we can only hope that ppl will think about the mistakes made while incarcerated like u! we need more resources inside and u mentioned the 80’s - a wild time indeed. more will make it and bless 🙏 u for this. My daughter is in prison but still won’t listen to reason. Our future relies on ppl like you. THANK YOU!!!!

    3. You are one of the few fortunate ones who has beaten the odds against discrimination practices. Moreover, an employment opportunity.
      However, such achievements cannot be accomplished without one's perseverance to succeed.
      Some here unfortunately will probably hate & judge. Despite such achievement.
      Just another of the obstacles for society to overcome.

      Applaud again. This from someone who like yourself made it happen.


    4. Always great to hear of success stories. The system needs to be re-worked. Education, better programs. Still there are those who will continue their path to destruction but the people in the know will not lift a finger. They want the prisons full so they get paid. Hypocrites mostly libs and dems. Easy paycheck at govt expense. The same ones who advocate the other way at the same time. It’s hard for a con to make it and it is more then an uphill struggle. Much more then that!! I wish there was better reform, more help while they are still inside so to speak. I am talking more USA prisons as Mexico’s there is NO hope nor will there ever be.

    5. Yo e42 you should expand your thinking a little bit. Try and deal with the inferiority complex that consumes you.

    6. @2:53Wow! Glad you made it good...Your story is inspiring.
      My bro-inlaw was a badass gangster...did time..then made the firemen programs. Came out of prison a changed "man" and role model for youngsters.
      Happy for you and your loved ones!

  8. Year after year you californians pollute the whole world from your forest fires that are largely preventable if you spent the hundreds of billions to build a safe power grid and clean up your forests, and, yet, you blame it on the world. Pay up! Raise your taxes! Cheapazz polluters!

    1. Just one of the many costly expenditures of climate change. California's inflation rate & housing costs are significantly higher compared to other states to continue such burdensome on its citizens.

    2. That is why they are fleeing like roaches. Problem is that they want where they're running from to be California. It happened here in the early nineties. A lot of local guys went to prison for murder. La La land.

  9. I did time in both CDC and county fire camps. It’s a positive work environment and self satisfying. The majority of the guys on these fire crews are trustworthy. Great program for low level security inmates. Good article.

  10. Yea but there’s plenty of NON FELONS who would
    Due to
    Join the fire department... when u commit a crime you chose to endanger your life, freedom, and future, .. so I say no. Let them fight fires while in there, but they shouldn’t be entitled to be real firefighters

    1. If youre fighting real fires youre a real fire fighter u dumb fuck. The fact that they wanna use em to fight fires cuz theyre low on resources and can pay them $1 an hr but wont let them do the job once its not slave labor is non sensical. Youd be surprised how many of those crews are inmate crews and how good they are, california would be fucked without them and for that they should show them some respect.

  11. when i was 14 15 before going to california youth authority my last chance according to the judge was fire camp. i went to one in los angeles county in city of Laverne called camp paige.its up in the hills in the sgv. training was hell. especially when coming from the streets and smoking weed. running all those miles/ i learned putting out a fire aint just hosing a fire with water. its clearing out brush and vegetation. clean up cleaning up acess roads. fire supression techniques its hard work and alot of weight you have to carry. i only did 4 months of crew duty personally i didn't it cuz we got paid few dollars a day lol. i transfered to the kitchen were it was much better. the food was the best.... hats off to all those firefighters and prisoners clearning out vegetation its hard and dangerous work.
    but not all firefighters are equal. city firefighters are not forest fire fighers. and forestry firefighters is the toughest and most dangerous firefighters die left and right.
    i just seen a video a week ago on youtube about a special group of elite forestry firefighers these are the top dogs they call when things get out of control. WILDLAND firefighters these guys jump out of planes helicopters there in the middle of the fire they start cutting big ol trees making a break line. there diff groups theres group that parachutes down others repel from a rope down engine crews initial attack crew that get droped off by helicopters. the most dangerous ones are smoke jumpers These highly-trained, experienced firefighters parachute from airplanes to provide quick initial attack on wildland fires in remote areas. it a really good video. whats crazy the average american has no idea that these people exsist and are out there battling the fires.

  12. This article doesn’t belong on this site. In the future please don’t run articles like this.

    Thanks in advance!

    1. correction: it is YOU that doesn't belong on this site. take a few classes in reading comprehension, then read the first sentence.

    2. Another tough guy on crime i suppose. Where inspirational stories of unbelievable achievements are dismissed by hate. Moreover, where poor judgment remains unforgiving despite paying one's debt to society.

      BB should have never posted this clowns comment.

    3. Philip: Who made you editor? I have been a BB followers for years and the article is right on with me. Narco topics have spinoff features. lots of pintos are in la torcida because of narcs and close related schiff linked to crime and border issues.
      We are blessed to have Chivis and her staff pick and choose things for us. BB is highly respected everywhere ... a reputation that has been earned with things behind the scenes you are ignorant of.
      VIVA Borderland Beat!

    4. Thank you....I feel no regret in fact this has thousands of views and overwhelmingly positive comment. I was uncertain how it would play with our picky viewership but was pleasantly surprised.


      I did warn in the lead in sentence that this was not about the narco war giving a viewer a chance to skip it.

  13. Isn't San Quentin max security? Why are low level security in Max prison.

    1. SQ has different levels of custody, all persons in this program must be in the minimum level status with restrictions on types of convictions.

      read more at this link:

    2. San quentin has death row but other then that its a reception and low level prison. The max security prisons are the new ones built after the late 80s.


    1. Jajaja what a silly person you are.

      I am very proud of my successful children. My son has two degrees, is compassionate, loving, funny, caring, outgoing and an amazing son and father.

      He was a child who never needed anyone to push him to accomplishment. He excelled in sports, received a scholarship, worked at a little gas station all through HS, was a great student and above all always assured that he did for others less fortunate. He has come with me on many trips deep into Mexico.
      I will leave you with the message he texted out to his family, friends with a foto of his return to 'civilization' after 40 days straight.

      "……At one point there were 38 fires burning out of control. The North Complex fire is the 5th most destructive fire in United States history.

      As always, it was an honor to serve...✌"

      Thank you 9:42 a.m. for giving me an opportunity to talk about my son.

    2. Absolutely love this comment from you Chivis. Your heart is pure. Thank you for all you do.

  15. great story thank you

  16. I worked as a crew captain for Cal Fire before retirement I ran a crew of youthful offenders.
    The camp I worked at now runs adult convicts.
    You do your time and then get on with your life. Everyone makes mistakes and in our society second chances are thankfully encouraged.
    Skills acquired by offender fire crews include work and training on chain saw use.
    If you look at tree trimming services across California you will find many very capable tree service experts that served time in the California prison system.
    If they can pass the tests for fire service work then that's a good thing.

  17. Thanks Chivis. This story inspires me. This is a great program and we should build on it. As a probation officer, many of my partners supervised inmate firefighters and believed strongly in the program. Lots of these folks continued their success when released. Great Program!

    1. I was researching this a couple years ago, and i ran across info about several inmate FF getting killed in one fire. I can't find it now. but i think it was in SoCal and in the 60s maybe.

      Have you ran into this story? thanks friend! are you back on low-land?

    2. No, that was in Malibu and it was a female inmate from the institution I worked at CIW. It was 6 yrs ago.

      And by the way, the governor just passed a law which lets inmate firefighters to qualify to work in county fire deptmente despite their felonies!

  18. Great article. Thanks for posting it.

  19. Love this article Chivis, siguele!

  20. Prison doc here. I’ve written about this bc it is so profoundly important that we SEE those who are incarcerated for who they have become, not define them by their inmate #.
    They are the invisible class among us. But they are the most resilient people I’ve had the privilege of caring for.


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