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Thread: FIREBOYS (Jake Hochendoner, Drew Dickler 2021)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    FIREBOYS (Jake Hochendoner, Drew Dickler 2021)




    A California youth inmate firefighter system that is a mixed blessing, and whose survival is in doubt

    Young men can be promising, even when they're locked up in prison.

    Fighting summer wildfires in California, everyone knows, is a huge and growing problem. Massive crews are required and those who go along the ground creating fire lines with shovel and chainsaw are essential. As much as a third of them may be inmates. This little documentary about California incarcerated youths (18 to 24) concerns the "fireboys" who volunteer and make the cut to work for Cal Fire fighting big fires in a freer environment. They can do this to work their way back to release. This offers them the experience of the toughest job they'll ever love. It's a discipline and a togetherness the film shows us are special. This can be rehabilitation. But it's complicated. The system is not fair. It is exploitive. This film introduces us to the young crews. It gives us a rough idea of the complications. It doesn't provide a complete context. But the experience it shows us is memorable and the subject is important.

    The training is a very specialized kind of boot camp. In many ways it seems less regimented, or simpler in its rituals, than basic training in the Army. But of course the youths at the firefighter camp haven't their rights.

    They are 18-24. They are carefully screened to be capable of the level of very hard work involved in fighting major California fires and having the discipline to be trusted in a minimum security environment. A supervisor says the youths differ from the older men in that they will work as long as there is work to do or until they can't work any longer. They're impressive. There is esprit de corps.

    Guys earn far below minimum wage for fighting dangerous fires; but it sounds exciting and it's way better than lockup. We see an early physical workout at a pre-selection stage. The focus is on Alex, who owes $20,000 for car jacking, etc. He is selected to go to the coveted Pine Grove youth firefighter camp. Its entrance sign says it dates back to 1945. This is not explained in the film, but apparently the system was built up during the war when professional firefighters had been sent away to fight Germans instead of flames. Alex is motivated and bright: he almost instantly memorizes a set of regulations. The camp is like an army barracks building. Drugs are forbidden, also cell phones.

    This is a kind of work-release program, one of the best, though there is still some doubt that many make it through successfully. Most most come from a dangerous world of gangs, violence and poverty in L.A. that is a railroad to prison and dangerous to go back to, but often they have no alternative. The camp is much nicer than prison. The food is reportedly better. There are no fences or barbed wire, no guard trucks. It is incarceration, and carries the feeling of being institutionalized. There is a roll call every hour. Calls home must be made on a pay phone at permitted times. The incarcerated firefighters are rated the same as the pros, but they get $1-$5 an hour and the pros get $20.

    This film is at its best following several individual young inmates as they become firefighters on the job and after they are released and return home. Chuly is a young inmate who has been the leader of his group for three years, and then he is sent to head his team in firefighting when he has days to his release. He has been incarcerated for four and a half years. His release and life on the outside are a main focus of this film.

    Chuy's case shows that it's not so easy to get hired as a firefighter after this experience, particularly with Cal Fire. His felony conviction means he has to wait seven years to do so. He can work for the US Forest Service, as did Antoinio Wellington, a young man who spoke to the fireboys. But for Chuy that would require going three hours away and he wants to stay at home. His job in security for $12.50 an hour he'd gladly trade for being back working a chainsaw fighting fires for a dollar an hour, he says. Onscreen notes tell us arrangements have been made recently in California for incarcerated firefighters to have their records expunged so they may go to work for Cal Fire after release.

    Chuy seems torn. He wanted very much to go back to his granddad, his family in Stockton. But he was going back to the unknown from a world where he had come to feel very secure and gained satisfaction. The film picks him up six months later working at the security job. But the follow-up is positive. A couple years later, he is able to go to welding school and become a full-time welder, a skill we're told he began at Pine Grove.

    We see one guy pulled off the team and expelled from Pine Grove by the female training officer for having a bad attitude. The filmmakers are not allowed to follow this inmate on the outside as he is returned to a correctional facility. We do not see that he has done anything dramatically wrong or was a danger and this shows what unchecked power the officers have. But they have to feel comfortable with their crew.

    The film also has all along been following the younger Alex, who makes the cut and goes into final training. He's a little heavy (a lot of them are). His feet hurt and the hikes are hard for him. But he is bright and motivated. Alex winds up doing well, and is promoted to a chainsaw position on his crew - after a year. He may be released in six months. Chuy ends by saying how he loves a fire and a chainsaw. "I'm always a firefighter," he says.

    The film concludes by pointing out that as California fires grew year after yeear, "incarcerated fire crews continue to be used without fair compensation or a clear pathway to employment after prison." We do not live in the most enlightened of societies. In fact America's huge prison population, with all of its wrongs and its woes, is one of its biggest problems, and the prisoner fire crews working to release, as a bright spot, is somewhat illusory.

    Fireboys vividly captures the youthful energy and enthusiasm of the firefighter inmates and the stoicism of the crews who manage them with tough love. The film has the limitations of the system. Clearly they were working under restraints. The editing is a bit haphazard. Its good that there is no intrusive narration or noisy music. A USA Today article that goes over the issues makes one feel this film may be a bit vague about the background of this system and its pros and cons. The article says the training the inmates receive is very inadequate. Supposedly this system saves the state or taxpayers $100 a year. But if well paid professional firefighters replaced the inmate volunteers and paid taxes, it's suggested, maybe that would be more cost effective.

    Nonetheless, motivating young offenders and giving them job skills they love to practice surely is a good in itself. It's complicated.

    Things are changing rapidly of late. A recent New York Times article reports, COVID has limited the number of inmates available to fight wildfires. Other articles show there was a danger Pine Grove wouldn't survive budget cuts, but it made it into 2021. There still seems to be doubt whether the program will be continued at all, despite the urgent need for manpower to fight the growing threat of wildfires. This film may need some updates.

    The filmmakers, for whom this is the first feature-length film, are passionate about social issues. A web page about this film provides fuller information and context. In fact that document seems like a description of the film they wanted to make, and is a necessary supplement to the film.

    Fireboys, 82 minutes, will be available to purchase or rent AUg. 3, 2021 It is not listed on IMDb.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-02-2021 at 05:51 PM.


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