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“Burning Issues”: Incarcerated Firefighting Programs in the U.S.

There are at least 15 states in the U.S. that use incarcerated people to fight wildland fires: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. This thesis outlines the broad adoption and ad-hoc nature of these programs, as well as the wide variation in data available about their operation. Though incarcerated men and women have been fighting fires in the U.S. for decades, many of these programs have received very little public scrutiny. The impacts of climate change, such as drought and warmer temperatures, have increased the likelihood of wildfires and the portion of the year when those fires are likely to spark. As climate change intensifies and the costs of disasters increase — in 1990, the U.S. spent $390 million fighting wildfires and in 2021, the nation spent $2.3 billion — the U.S. will have a growing need for firefighting labor. Meanwhile, the federal government is struggling to hire enough firefighters to meet the demand. Though numerous variables contribute to the creation, maintenance, and size of incarcerated firefighting programs, increasing and more dangerous fire activity could push states to consider using this labor more often. That makes it essential to understand the scope of these programs as well as their ultimate effect on participants.

Emma Foehringer Merchant
Written by
Emma Foehringer Merchant

Emma Foehringer Merchant is a journalist who has covered environmental issues ranging from natural disasters to wonky energy regulations to air pollution.

Her interest in environmental writing began in high school after she wrote a mock bill for the US to join the Kyoto Protocol as a class assignment. Since then, she’s edited her high school newspaper and reported on the environment for publications including The New Republic and Grist.

Most recently, Emma covered clean energy as a staff writer for Greentech Media and helped alums of that organization form a new publication called Canary Media. She graduated in 2014 with a degree in environmental analysis from Pomona College, where she lived through a California drought while studying how climate change is impacting the state’s environment and its people.

At MIT, Emma hopes to deepen her investigative reporting skills to continue reporting on environmental issues.

Emma Foehringer Merchant Written by Emma Foehringer Merchant