California inmate firefighter killed by falling tree

Matthew Beck firefighter
Matthew Beck. Photo credit: CDCR.

(Revised at 1:13 p.m. MDT May 27, 2017)

The California inmate firefighter in Humboldt County was killed May 24 while working on a county roads project in the northwestern part of the state in Del Norte County.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Matthew Beck, 26, was working with a crew in the Hoopa area. He suffered major head, neck and back injuries when a 120-foot tall tree uprooted and fell on him. He died before life-flight crews were able to reach him.

“We are saddened by the death of Matthew Beck, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends,” said CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan. “The inmates who year after year help protect our communities from the devastation of fires perform a valuable public service, and it is a tragic event when we lose one of them.”

Mr. Beck, who was assigned to the Alder Conservation Camp in Del Norte County, was serving a six-year sentence for burglary and was due to be parolled in October. He is the fourth inmate firefighter to die on a fire since the conservation program was created in the 1940s.

In February of 2016 another California inmate firefighter, Shawna Lynn Jones, 22, died after being struck by a boulder that rolled down a hill on the Mulholland Fire near Malibu.

Our sincere condolences go out to the friends, family, and coworkers of both firefighters.

This article has been edited to rectify incorrect information initially provided by the CDRC. The firefighter was not working on a fire at the time of the accident.

Tuesday morning one-liners

FSPRO analysis of the Hathaway Fire
FSPRO analysis of the Hathaway Fire in southern California, if there was no suppression, June 9, 2013

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Female inmate crew feeds firefighters in Nevada

Smith Ranch Fire
Smith Ranch Fire as seen from the Jiggs Highway (SR 228) shortly after igniting from a lightning strike July 19, 2013. InciWeb photo.

A female inmate crew from a Conservation Camp in Las Vegas prepared meals for the firefighters working on the Smith Ranch Fire 10 miles north of Jiggs, Nevada. Rae Brooks, an Information Officer at the fire, wrote the article and took the photos below. In case you’re wondering, it is against the rules to take photos of the inmates’ faces.


inmates prepare steaks for dinner
Female inmate kitchen crew prepares New York steaks for firefighters’ dinner

“ELKO, Nev. — The task: prepare a hot breakfast, hearty bag lunches and a three-course dinner for 250 firefighters in a cow pasture with no running water. The pay: a dollar an hour — and a day knocked off their sentences for every eight hours worked.

A kitchen crew of 14 female inmates from the Jean Conservation Camp in Las Vegas have been providing meals for firefighters this week on the Smith Ranch Fire, about 25 miles southeast of Elko.

Ranging in age from 21 to 48, the women are all minimum-security prisoners who are being rewarded with the privilege of working outside the conservation camp fence after making it through a rigorous screening process, passing a physical-fitness test and undergoing a comprehensive training program.

Another reward: What one crew member called “big old smiles” from the firefighters working on the 2,777-acre blaze. After a long hot day building line — and a few days subsisting on Meals-Ready-to-Eat — the firefighters are not hesitant to let the kitchen crew know how much they appreciate tucking into a real meal.

“A lot of us never had that appreciation before,” said the crew member. “So to have it is great.”

The meal on tap this particular evening: 8-oz. New York steaks, black bean chili, cheesy mashed potatoes and three different types of salad, followed by freshly baked apple pie.

Pies at Smith Ranch Fire
Eighteen apple pies baked in a transportable oven for firefighters’ dinner at Smith Ranch Fire

The Nevada Division of Forestry and the Nevada Department of Corrections jointly run nine minimum-security conservation camps throughout the state where inmates serve sentences, while doing project work and serving on emergency-response crews for wildland fire suppression, flood control, search and rescue, and ice and snow removal.

Although much of the work the inmate crews perform is unpaid, they generate about $1.4 million annually for the state’s general fund.

Only the Jean location houses female inmates. During the past two years, Jean crews have worked more than 12,000 hours on 28 emergency incidents.

When they arrive at a fire, the crew can have their kitchen up and running within an hour. Their normal workday begins at 3 a.m., and except for a few hours’ rest in the mid-day heat, ends an hour short of midnight.

dining tables at Smith Ranch fire
Outdoor dining tables await firefighters at Smith Ranch Fire

Wearing hairnets and disposable gloves, the women prepare and cook meals on a portable outdoor two-sided range, then serve the food in a cafeteria-style line. After each meal, they do clean up. They are also responsible each day for making sandwiches and stuffing multiple lunch items into a legion of paper sacks.

At night, they bed down in tents, watched over by a female correctional officer. She takes roll call, escorts them on any night-time Porta Potty visits, counts them hourly throughout the night, and wakes them up when it’s time to go back to work.

Working on the kitchen crew teaches the women a trade, which they can use to earn a living after their release. Many of the younger women had never learned to cook.

The kitchen crews are “a good local resource” for fires that aren’t big enough to warrant a national caterer, said Jean camp supervisor Jon Shogren. The state also has two male inmate kitchen crews.

Crew boss Bruce Travis said the inmates really appreciate the opportunity to work on the crews, and the experience can bring out the best in them.

“If you get people out of that negative environment, you can see there’s more to them,” said Travis.

Another inmate said she was grateful for all the skills she has learned, including food preparation, cooking, food safety, cleanliness and presentation. Being outdoors was also a bonus.

‘Especially at night-time when it’s dark, and you see all the stars,” she said. “It’s just all-round rewarding.’ ”

Removing pies from oven
Jean Conservation Camp supervisor Jon Shogren removes apple pies from transportable ovens at Smith Ranch Fire.