Always look for the helpers
October 18, 2017 1:02 PM   Subscribe

California wildfires continue to rage but one doctor managed to rescue several newborn babies on his motorcycle. Devastating fires have been burning counties in Northern California for weeks now, leading to massive property destruction, death, and a healthcare crisis. New fires are cropping up in Santa Cruz County and Sausalito and Dublin. Fires have been worsened by a perfect storm of fire-favorable conditions. In addition to paid firefighters, incarcerated women are being paid $1/hour for fighting on the front lines.
posted by stillmoving (42 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Just to clarify -- the babies in the first link were riding in ambulances; the doctor followed on his motorcycle.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:09 PM on October 18, 2017 [29 favorites]

the babies in the first link were riding in ambulances; the doctor followed on his motorcycle.

Well, there goes that amazing mental picture that I had going for a few seconds there.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:19 PM on October 18, 2017 [123 favorites]

I don't want to derail the conversation immediately, but I was picturing either an amazing sidecar filled with babies, or some sort of super-Moby-wrap contraption in which the doctor was covered with bandoliers of babies. Obviously, the babies would be totally unperturbed, in the grand tradition of cinematic danger babies.

And now, back to existential dread.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:26 PM on October 18, 2017 [58 favorites]

I feel like the doctor deserves a more colorful version of his story. It's all written very professionally and factually, and he's also quite matter of fact about it. But I'm trying to imagine riding through flames and embers and ash on a motorcycle with only the glow of ambulance taillights as a guide and uh, it seems like it would be pretty dramatic.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 1:31 PM on October 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

“I wouldn’t say it was the scariest thing I did in my life but close to it,” Witt said.

Where's the follow-up question?!?
posted by The Tensor at 1:31 PM on October 18, 2017 [26 favorites]

Apparently the firefighting program for prisoners is voluntary.
Another incentive is that inmate firefighters earn two days off their sentence for each day they're in the fire camp, as compared to other California inmates who can earn just one day for each day of good behavior... To participate, inmates must be convicted of a non-violent crime, have a record of good behavior and pass physical examinations. If an inmate has a history of sexual offenses, arson or any history of violent escape, they’re automatically disqualified from the firefighting program. Qualified volunteers are trained by Cal Fire and then receive additional wildfire training in the camps. Training focuses on endurance because shifts can be as long as 16 hours, inmates say.
I have... complicated feelings about this. Recidivism rate is lower for women who participate and many of the women interviewed seem to view the experience positively, but $14/day for backbreaking work digging fire lines? And it's not without risk--an inmate was killed on a fire line recently. Good on these inmates, though, for volunteering for tough duty and hopefully getting something positive out of it for themselves.

California is in a nasty position. They do controlled burns, but could stand to do more. Unfortunately, burning affects air quality, so it's like being between a rock and a hard place. And the state is unfortunately lax about enforcing their requirements for firebreaks that protect construction near wooded areas.
posted by xyzzy at 1:39 PM on October 18, 2017 [13 favorites]

Sorry, I REALLY REALLY wanted the baby bandolier to be a Thing.
posted by at 1:41 PM on October 18, 2017 [14 favorites]

A friend of mine who's a doctor with a hospital system says that if they have to evacuate the baby floor, the elevators shut down, so the plan for getting the babies downstairs involves the attending pediatrician putting on a special lab coat with many large, specially sewn pockets

and the nurses put a baby into each pocket

and said pediatrician going down the fire stairs with, like, POCKETS OF BABIES, while protected by nurses front and back

(This may have been historically the case, and probably only for babies who didn't need the NICU or whatever, but I have just chosen to believe LAB COAT OF BABIES is still how they do it because it sounds so fucking badass.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 1:45 PM on October 18, 2017 [95 favorites]

Actual baby evacuation gear.

Mental Floss on baby aprons.

But back to the topic at hand - I have coworkers who live up on Skyline and the Bear Fire is way too close for anyone's comfort. It's also where there are a ton of Christmas tree farms - I hope we're still able to get a live tree locally this Christmas.
posted by GuyZero at 1:54 PM on October 18, 2017 [18 favorites]

For some interspecies helpers, I enjoyed this story from folks who had to flee without their dog because he was determined to stay and protect their family of goats. Not only did they all survive, but the flock picked up several baby deer along the way!
posted by gueneverey at 2:07 PM on October 18, 2017 [38 favorites]

dibs on 'cinematic danger babies' band name.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:09 PM on October 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

This is what I had in mind. Also, I am terribly amused that one of the devices in GuyZero's first link is called a "kiddie litter".
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:21 PM on October 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

I too have mixed feelings on the prisoners and firefighting. On the one hand, yeah, it's kinda sucky slave labor that provides a lot of perverse incentives, on the other hand those I know involved in the criminal justice system in California, from former inmates who've participated in the program to criminal defense attorneys who have similar mixed feelings, the positives of that program are astounding and huge. If there's one aspect of California incarceration that's actually effectively doing rehabilitation rather than just recidivism, it's the firefighting program.

On the other hand, I've also had a former inmate tell me that the community integrations that it builds are all in rural areas, and if he'd gone there when he'd been released the lure of meth would have been way too strong to stay straight.

I'm in Petaluma, 20 miles south of the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa that was burned by the Tubbs fire. I know several people who lost homes and have heard a lot of harrowing stories of driving through the burning embers. My truck is fairly well set up for camping, and we've long had a "go" bag by the door, so when everything was up in the air and nobody knew which way the Nuns fire was going (southeast of Santa Rosa, and far closer to us) I was ready to go...

... but this doctor's tale is another push for that demon whispering "ya know, a motorcycle would be really cool" in my ear...
posted by straw at 2:42 PM on October 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I work in a children's hospital. The baby aprons are real. Repeat: the baby aprons are real. This is not a drill.
posted by saturday_morning at 2:47 PM on October 18, 2017 [44 favorites]

Hey, straw, a motorcycle would be really cool...

(Also, getting your class M license in CA is really easy, and I was only a year younger than you are now when I got on a motorcycle for the first time...)
posted by hanov3r at 2:55 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Apparently the firefighting program for prisoners is voluntary.

You cannot volunteer for this as a prisoner because being in prison is inherently coercive. The State of California has fought to keep this form of prison labor explicitly because it saves them money over having to pay non-prisoners who have other choices available to them.
posted by indubitable at 3:30 PM on October 18, 2017 [38 favorites]

I think the program for California firefighters could exist with way more appropriate pay levels. Even moving it to 5 dollars an hour could really increase economic opportunity , allow people to support family and themselves and decrease economic punishment of jail terms.

Also the whole issue that felons can't be actual forest firefighters after prison makes many of the skills useless.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:31 PM on October 18, 2017 [38 favorites]

Searching for my stepbrother in the wildfires, by Frances Dinkelspiel.
posted by peppercorn at 3:52 PM on October 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

(disclaimer: that story that I just posted is personal to me! ...I can't think of any other way to say it without directly divulging my identity, haha)
posted by peppercorn at 3:59 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Well, there goes that amazing mental picture that I had going for a few seconds there.

I had already cast the movie with Keanu Reeves the hero biker doctor.

What's happening up there is horrific. At least the parents of those tiny babies now know their children are safe.
posted by fuse theorem at 5:08 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's this weird thing in disasters where we who aren't directly impacted try to place ourselves within them. I first noticed it after the Loma Prieta quake: everyone had their story of how they were on the Bay Bridge only 1/2 hour before the earthquake, or their neighbor's daughter 's apartment was destroyed or whatever.

I find myself doing that with these fires because they are so physically close to me. Last night my friend told me that her friend just lost his hand-built home in the Santa Cruz Mountains last night. It feels close to me even though it's not really. But in a way it's a good instinct to stay connected to those who are suffering near us. I keep thinking about Houston and how for those of us far from Texas, we barely even remember what a massive disaster they just went through. But so many of those folks are still without jobs or apartments.

Not sure what I'm saying here. The fires are terrible: the air has been horrendous in the Bay Area - worst I've ever seen - which is surely having a public health impact. To say nothing of those losing their homes.
posted by latkes at 5:43 PM on October 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Just to be clear, from personal knowledge of the California Fire Camp system, there are a number of advantages to being in fire camp beyond the hourly pay.

The facilities are much more generous. There are no fences, there are no towers with armed guards gazing down at the inmates, they don't need permission to enter and exit doorways as it is with more standard prisons. The place looks a lot more like a kid's summer camp than a prison. Having volunteered pretty extensively in several different California prisons, even the nicest prison still feels domineering and overbearing. It is a mental relief to walk out of a prison after a workshop, no matter how positive the experience. Fire Camps are much, much nicer. Every single person I've talked to there is grateful for the opportunity to be there. It is MUCH more humane than regular prisons and has a much higher emphasis on redeveloping skills that are needed to successfully integrate back into their communities.

Two, the inmates are paid for both on call time and actual firefighting time. IIRC, at the main fire camp I work at, the men are paid $1/hr on standby, and $2/hr while working. I think you all are right to argue that it's still not enough and still somewhat coercive, but the pay is MUCH better than other prison occupations, which tend to pay between $0.30-$0.80 an hour. Should pay for all inmates be raised? Quite possibly, but it's a larger conversation than just the fire camps.

I was actually supposed to go to a fire camp this weekend, but the guys are all out fighting the wildfires so our workshop was canceled.
posted by zug at 6:44 PM on October 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

I think the option to do firefighting while a prisoner is actually great. Stories from inmates who do this work are a testament to the positive aspects of the program.

But prison itself is a problem. We need prison abolition, or at minimum, a massive reduction in the number of people imprisoned and length of sentences. But yeah, if we keep having any form of prison, those prisoners should have access to chose this as a work option. And as mentioned above, we need to "ban the box" and allow former prisoners to get fire jobs with this experience when they get out!

The problem with paying the prisoners so little isn't just that they are underpaid, but as suggested above, it undermines pay for non-prison forest fire workers.
posted by latkes at 6:54 PM on October 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

One of the first civilian medevac services (/lifeflight by helicopter) was inaugurated in Peoria in 1967, when one of the nuns who ran the Catholic hospital in Peoria (OSF) was at an outlying rural site with a desperately premature infant and saw the Peoria Journal Star (newspaper) helicopter, which sat two, and said to the reporter, "You're going to need to get out, I'm flying this premature infant to Peoria" which had the only premie unit in the state at the time. (The reporter was reportedly able to hitchhike home.) And she hopped in next to the pilot with the baby in a cardboard box and commandeered the helicopter and, indeed, flew to Peoria where they could treat a premie infant, and then it turned into the first regular life-flight system in the US, with an incubator that plugged into the cigarette lighter because they had those in helicopters, until the Journal Star was like "yo, you gotta get your own chopper." And anyway now everyone has life flight but not everyone has flying nuns.

Also Sister of Eyebrows and Infant Nephew of Eyebrows had to evacuate California because the air quality was so super-bad for his infant lungs, which is incredibly stressful and I can barely imagine and I would have dissolved into a ball of sobbing hormones on the floor but Sister of Eyebrows is a little more sturdily built than me, but ON THE OTHER HAND Sister of Eyebrows (and brand-new Nephew of Eyebrows) is in Chicago partying with Eyebrows and I am SO PSYCHED. As are the small McGees who are like "ANOTHER BABY???? YAY!" They totally do not understand wildfires and think we're just having an awesome new-baby visit. But I'm pretty glad they didn't have to evacuate by ambulance and instead could go by commercial aircraft because it was just "shitty air" and not LIFE THREATENING EMERGENCY.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:02 PM on October 18, 2017 [19 favorites]

Cliff Mass has some thoughts about a unique wind event being a factor in the Santa Rosa fires.
posted by vespabelle at 9:29 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

You cannot volunteer for this as a prisoner because being in prison is inherently coercive.

This. It's like saying "well those poor women wanted to be prostitutes because it's good money" when every conceivable card in the desk was stacked against them, and they played the only shitty hand dealt them. ALL prison labor which benefits the outside world is slavery. The fact that this is a job wherein the risks to life and health are higher than most free people would be comfortable with is what makes most of us draw the line and say "this doesn't seem right, somehow." But all prison labor is wrong. And as progressive as California is, I'm shocked we allow this.

That said, thank you to everyone fighting these fires. You are appreciated more than I can express.
posted by greermahoney at 10:12 PM on October 18, 2017

One or two of those big embers or sparks from the fires in Santa Rosa or Sonoma make it to Mt. Sutro and the tinder dry eucalyptus forests up there and in the vicinity and a very bad week becomes very very bad. Stay safe everyone and pray for rain.
posted by specialk420 at 10:55 PM on October 18, 2017

They should at least be getting minimum wage. We really need to stop allowing exemptions to that.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:37 PM on October 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Not that I'm a survivalist, but this is why I think knowing how to ride a motorcycle is an important life skill. When shit hits, you can at least zip around / through traffic.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:44 PM on October 18, 2017

IIRC, after all that training and work, former inmates are not allowed to become firefighters proper, despite having served their sentences. This seems such a waste.
posted by goofyfoot at 11:46 PM on October 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

When I think about it, I feel like if I was incarcerated, I'd choose the firefighting job over nothing. Even with the risks. I am very sympathetic to the argument that it's inherently coercive, especially with many prisons around the country obviously being run with cheap labor as a goal. I don't know how to correct for that, and maybe there is no way.
I've heard before that cons in general are banned from employment as firefighters, but searching now I can't find evidence of it. I wouldn't be surprised at all that it's true, but does someone have a reference?
posted by flaterik at 1:53 AM on October 19, 2017

Interesting to read about prisoners fighting fires for token pay. Where I live (Australia) bushfire fighters are volunteers, all under one large state organisation. I think the same goes for all the other states.
posted by kitten magic at 3:36 AM on October 19, 2017

It is important to understand that the purpose of imprisonment is to punish commission of a crime and this punishment from the first, arrest, and the final verdict on guilt, incarceration, prohibits the personal liberty of the convicted 24 hours each day .

In general and in the interest of "safety", civil society delegates authority to regulate or control their conduct to the state to the extent that states' and federal authorities do NOT violate enumerated civil liberties, or "bill of rights," granted by law to the individual. Some US citizens, being "libertarians," deem this consideration coercive in principle. The incarcerated individual, however, immediately loses what discretion, or choice, penal-system "free" citizens enjoy. In fact, time served does not restore fully "rights" of citizenship to felons. They are disqualified from many kinds of economic assistance--housing, medical services, education, employment. The fact that private- and public-sector employers regularly, lawfully screen applicants for convictions should prove the rule. They are disenfranchised. Just last year the governor of VA provoked another patriot scandal.

Amendment XIII Section 1.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Historically, governments of the USA have demonstrated little interest in rehabilitating the so-called criminal mind, preferring to delegate that duty to missionaries who dared enter its penal colonies. Availability of unpaid labor and indentured servitude has always provided economic incentive to "civil" society to produce more of those captives. It is comparatively recent, post-WWII, agitation and activism within "secular" society that has modified states' legislation to fund "oversight" or accountability of adminstrators, sentencing guidelines, and programmatic rehabilitation of prisoners to re-enter their domain.

So yes, California statute that compensates convicts who volunteer for any employment in time served and wages (not a salary; a salary is lump sum compensation received in periodic distributions regardless of labor hours) is a "progressive" reform of penal standards in the USA. The bar is set pretty low. So it will be many centuries, if ever, before prisoners earn $15/hr to moderate Twitter accounts or home health care aid.
posted by marycatherine at 4:06 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

>Not only did they all survive, but the flock picked up several baby deer along the way!

Awww, Odin the goat (and fawn!)-saving dog is a Great Pyrenees. They're good dogs, Brent.
(My folks GP only wanted to go walkabout on their property. He'd leave for hours and come back all muddy.)
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 7:55 AM on October 19, 2017

Interesting to read about prisoners fighting fires for token pay. Where I live (Australia) bushfire fighters are volunteers, all under one large state organisation. I think the same goes for all the other states.

I'm in the US, and for about a half-year I was looking to become a firefighter. The first thing I discovered was that the majority of firefighting jobs here are volunteer.

Paying structural jobs are generally located in large cities and are extremely competitive. In theory the minimum requirements in most areas are pretty low (be 18, pass physical fitness tests, maybe have some level of EMT certification). In practice the successful applicants have emergency care experience, they're EMTs (preferably paramedics) with plenty of ambulance experience (preferably also driving), and/or they have at least a year or so firefighting experience. Depending on where you live the EMT experience might have to be through volunteer work, and for your first position the firefighting experience will almost certainly be entirely volunteer because those are the only positions a newbie can get. By the way, applying for that volunteer position will likely be competitive in of itself, and you'll have to work up the ladder to get yourself from being a backup to regularly being on call and accumulating hours.

That gives you an idea of the difficulty of becoming a "normal" firefighter. Wildfire firefighting positions, whether volunteer or paid, are next level. They're incredibly prestigious and even more competitive. I mean, if you manage to become a smokejumper--that is, you're literally skydiving into the middle of a fire--you're one of something like 300 active smokejumpers in the country. To put that in perspective, there are about ten times that many active Navy SEALs.

I'm detailing all this because, like, I can understand why someone would volunteer for these positions whether they're an inmate or not. They're dirty and dangerous but pretty incredible. Understand that the description of their work conditions are pretty much par for the course for wilderness firefighting, and their duties are about what you'd get as a newbie to a crew. I suspect that if all inmate firefighting jobs were eliminated you would be able to find a lot of volunteers, at least once the infrastructure for the massive increase in recruitment was established. I would be interested to see if the calculations involved in the state's savings is accounting for the possibility of volunteer involvement.

On the other hand, from what I've read inmates who volunteer for these positions may be getting the psychological benefits but not the chance to use their experience to springboard to paid positions. It varies from state to state on whether they accept ex-cons in wildfire programs, they face more discrimination for the positions they apply for, and it appears most structural fire departments (i.e. "normal" firefighting) refuse employment entirely. It wastes experience, it wastes an opportunity to reduce recidivism, and it's another example of our insanely punitive criminal justice system that doesn't just refuse to change for humanitarian reasons, it won't even make changes that objectively reduce crime and provide material benefits.

And that's without even considering the large issues of coercion inherent in the use of even "volunteer" prison labor.
posted by Anonymous at 2:42 PM on October 19, 2017

this is an amazing thread and the beanplating about babies on motorcycle warms my heart but I can't read another single story about these fires because i'm severely dehydrated from all the tears that come every time I read "we lost everything".

stay safe, anyone nearby.
posted by numaner at 4:03 PM on October 19, 2017

Fuuu... I'm watching Facebook Live video of friends who were just let back into Coffey Park digging through their ashes and starting to find the memoriesof their life. I'm with ya on the tears, numaner.
posted by straw at 9:42 AM on October 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's that kind of bullshit that makes me want to just burn them all down. Like, there's no room in this world for such fucking despicable misinformation. I wish some catastrophic disaster destroys all those websites, I will gleefully laugh atop the charred and flooded corpses of their servers.
posted by numaner at 8:27 AM on October 24, 2017

Don’t blame California wildfires on a ‘perfect storm’ of weather events
As the fire threatened new neighborhoods, media reports filled airwaves and front pages across the nation, with most coverage conveying a mix of compassion, grief, anxiety and disbelief. And as usual, diverse groups began trying to explain the severity of this most recent wildfire disaster by referencing a unique confluence of environmental factors, such as high temperatures, strong winds, and lots of vegetation available as fuel.

But having researched the intersection of urban development and fire in the western U.S., including the 1991 Oakland Fire, I’ve come to see how flawed this way of looking at fires is. Calling wildires a result of a “perfect storm” is highly simplistic and arguably dishonest. It ignores the long and complex social-ecological fuse that actually leads to costly and injurious wildfire disasters.
posted by homunculus at 2:59 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

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