Root & Rebound

Through the Fire: Deciding to Not Give Up on Yourself

A journey from incarceration to firefighting

Root & Rebound
8 min readApr 25, 2024

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Surrounded by trees and a simmering heat, Gabriel hacks away at vegetation in preparation for the red wave that threatens to envelop the forest around him. He makes his way around the greenery in small strides, being mindful to take deep breaths. Beads of sweat run down his forehead and his arms. He moves along in a rhythmic tune — pausing as his arms are centered above his head, re-gripping the axe handle, and coming down in one swift motion to break up the ground beneath him. He is exhausted, monotonously performing the same, repetitive action, but he likes it here. His mind begins to clear itself; similar to the vegetation beneath him, it is no longer soiled with ruminating thoughts or past experiences. Gabriel is a California firefighter, and this is his therapy.

On any given day, Gabriel’s schedule consists of training, going to school, and spending time with his family, but life was very different just a few years ago. Although he was still a firefighter, many of his colleagues didn’t consider him to be one. He would wake up early in the morning like everybody else, be stationed at a specific site for days on end and work side by side with others. However, Gabriel knew that he was different. His captain would only call him by his last name; he would get paid a few dollars per day to do the same work; he could not go home at the end of a fire season; his uniform was purposely different; along his shirt and pant legs was the lettering that reminded him of who he was. It read: CDCR PRISONER. He had decided to risk his life in exchange for his prison sentence as an incarcerated firefighter.

Starting Over

Once on the outside, Gabriel wasn’t too sure about what life had in store for him, but he was determined to remain a firefighter. This may have been an issue if he had been released before 2020 when California was known to utilize incarcerated firefighters to battle the state’s wildfires. Once released, those same incarcerated firefighters who risked their lives were often denied an opportunity to continue on the same career path because of their record (Vera). Fortunately, much of that changed with the passing of AB 2147. Gabriel had made it out at the right time.

He remembers setting foot outside the prison gates with all his belongings stuffed into a white mesh bag. It was over 8 years since Gabriel walked around the world freely. He didn’t carry much. Most of his property was left behind, including previous versions of himself. The world was still recovering from the effects of the pandemic as he was recuperating from the effects of concrete and confinement.

Walking on the sidewalk, Gabriel could feel a buzz of excitement. The smiles and positive energy of others made him feel a tingly sensation in his cheeks. He hadn’t used those muscles in a long time because it wasn’t often that he smiled. He dreamt of this freedom, but as he stood there, a sudden, darker feeling began to seep in. The movements of people started to speed up. Shoes that initially caressed the concrete transformed into obnoxious thuds that pounded against his ears. Everyone began to look his way, and he no longer felt at ease. It was as if prison had branded a visible scar that immediately told those around him that he was different, that he didn’t belong.

“I remember getting out and I didn’t fit in. I felt different. I don’t know if it was just me…. I didn’t feel welcomed even though I felt people tried… I felt like it wasn’t sincere, like they were just doing it just to do it. It didn’t feel real.”

Although difficult, this was part of the reentry process. Gabriel saw that his pathway to remain free was not going to be linear, but he also knew he would not give up on the commitment he had made to himself.

Responding to Rejection

Still adapting to the free world, Gabriel focused on his goal of becoming a firefighter. He began mapping out potential pathways and remembered a program specifically built to help individuals like him. The opportunity he sought was the Ventura Training Center (VTC), a program designed to train and develop previously incarcerated individuals for a career as a firefighter.

Gabriel had ambition. Working with fires had become part of his essence. He knew he had the rigor to push through strenuous circumstances and both the mental and physical bandwidth to study this field. This program was made for him. He applied to the program and was denied.

“I was like, whoa… that didn’t make sense. Like why? I was doing this before I got out…. [But] they said I had just gotten released, and they wanted to see how I integrated back into society…. So I was like, well, the only thing I can do is show them that I could do this.”

Although getting the denial was difficult, he understood their reasoning. Gabriel was freshly home, and they wanted to see how he would interact with the world; he needed more time out in the free world.

Within the week he enrolled in school and a drug treatment program. He was happy to be back in school because education had always been important to him. He began preparing for his high school equivalency exam and also co-enrolled in community college. Within two months he passed his GED. He wanted to have backup options, so he applied for a firefighter recruitment program and began taking additional classes. He was determined to get into the VTC program. Every few weeks he would give them a call, give them updates on his college courses and recent certifications, and tell them how his physical fitness had improved. Two weeks before he was scheduled to start the firefighter recruitment program, he received a call from the folks at VTC. They had reconsidered him for the program. He was in.

Cleaning Up the Past

While at VTC, Gabriel ran into a friend who shared news about cleaning his record. He told him the process was pretty simple and that he should look into it. Record cleaning was something that Gabriel had considered because of its potential to affect his journey to becoming a firefighter, specifically with obtaining an EMT certification. In some cases, an EMT certification is not required to become a firefighter, but it is a desirable qualification that most departments look for. This is how we at Root & Rebound encountered Gabriel.

Gabriel was connected with an attorney who broke down the record-cleaning process. Together, they reviewed his convictions and which ones were eligible for expungement. He wrote a declaration statement and gathered the documentation needed — letters of support from the community, certifications he completed, employment reviews, everything that showed who he is today, and how he has continued to make amends for the wrongs he committed. They submitted their petitions to the courts, and in a matter of months, the judge dismissed his convictions in the interest of justice.

The pathway was clearing up, but he had one more conviction to address in a separate county. He and the attorney underwent the same process of writing a statement and gathering supporting documents to ask for his conviction to be reviewed, but it didn’t go as planned.

“They put us for non-appearance…. I didn’t even get a chance to go to court and argue in any way or defend myself or anything…. They just denied us without even going to court.”

Gabriel was hurt to receive the news. He wasn’t asking to overwrite his wrongs. He took accountability for the things he did by serving his prison sentence and adhering to the conditions of his parole. He just wanted an honest chance, a second chance, to live a life where his past didn’t overshadow the person he is today.

“I don’t want to be feeling like something’s being withheld from me…. I want to be able to get as far as I can as a firefighter. I want to be the best firefighter I could be…. In order to do that, I have to get all of this training and certifications and time in there [the department]. But without my EMT, I won’t be able to get that. Now I’m limited…. Now you’re stopping me…. It doesn’t feel right.”

The Fight Continues

Even though Gabriel had received the bad news, it didn’t stop him from reaching the goals he had set for himself. Soon after the court’s denial, he completed the VTC program and began applying to several fire departments. The recent news didn’t mean Gabriel couldn’t become a firefighter, but having an EMT certification was a desirable certification and would only increase his chances of gaining employment. Not having the certification would also limit his mobility within the field. He applied for positions in several counties. He reached out to several fire captains that he had worked with while incarcerated. Not many of them were supportive, but he had built new relationships with the individuals he encountered in the VTC program. Eventually, Gabriel received a yes and became an official firefighter.

Several months ago, Gabriel was in the field working on a prescribed burn, where they purposely managed vegetation by manually removing it or setting the ground ablaze. Things were pretty normal. He hacked away at vegetation, took his pauses, and allowed his mind to cleanse itself. On one of those breaks, he went to grab some equipment off the truck and spotted a familiar group of people in the distance. For no apparent reason, his heart began to thud. Although the fire crew were strangers, deep down he knew them. He made his way closer and saw why he was breathing faster. They had the all-too-familiar “CDCR PRISONER” stamped on their uniform.

His brain wanted him to move away, but his body pulled him closer; he didn’t know what overtook him; he called out to get their attention; they were all a bit guarded until he started talking:

“I want you guys to know something…. I was where you’re at like a year ago. I don’t want you guys to ever forget that. You could get out and do anything you want to do.”

Their faces transformed into smiles when he told them about once being in their shoes. They couldn’t believe someone like them had made it out to the free world and was now a “normal” firefighter. The look of hope in their eyes filled Gabriel’s heart because it was among the incarcerated community where he didn’t feel judged. They saw him for who he was, as did he.

Today, there is a deep resonance of peace that Gabriel carries with him. Through firefighting, he lights up at the idea of positively contributing to the community he once harmed. Even though he has obstacles in his way (not being able to expunge his record so that he can get his EMT certification), it does not mean he won’t strive to be the best person he can be.

“I’m a firefighter. That’s what I am. And I love to do it…. Look at me as a firefighter, not as a freaking prisoner. Or look at me the way you look at other firefighters. Look at me like that. Give me the same respect.”

An Afterthought

While writing this narrative, we got an update from Gabriel about the news he recently received. A few months after the denial, he reapplied for expungement and the judge granted it. Gabriel is now on the pathway to becoming an EMT-certified firefighter while pursuing a fire technology degree.

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Root & Rebound

Support people navigating reentry and reduce the harms perpetuated by mass incarceration.