California Prisoner Working as Firefighter Steals Fire Truck
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California Prisoner Steals Fire Engine, Tries to Escape Custody While Fighting Wildfire (VIDEO)

California’s practice of using incarcerated labor for firefighting resulted in a bizarre Fourth of July heist on Sunday night, as a prisoner stole a firetruck in an apparent escape attempt. The man caused thousands of dollars in property damage before crashing, destroying the vehicle and landing himself in the hospital, local news outlets reported.

The 31-year-old prisoner was involved in the state’s controversial inmate-firefighter program in which prisoners are trained and deployed to help the state fight wildfires in exchange for time off of their sentence and pay of $2 to $5 per day. Authorities released no details about this participant in the program, except to reveal that he is an Orange County man who has been serving a sentence since 2015.

According to a report from The Sacramento Bee, the Cal Fire Amador-El Dorado Unit was responding to a call about a vegetation fire caused by illegal fireworks in Shingle Springs when the incarcerated firefighter jumped behind the wheel of the truck and accelerated.

The truck—which The Associated Press described as a “California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection all-wheel-drive wildland firefighting engine designed to carry four firefighters”—was stolen at approximately 12:40 a.m. Monday morning.

After leaving the scene of the fire, the prisoner appeared to lose control of the vehicle, driving through a fence and into a Rack-It Truck Racks store, hitting a parked car belonging to the business, a tree, and a second fence, before jumping the curb and driving into a ditch, totaling the vehicle, California Highway Patrol Sgt. Dave Varao told the AP, calling the incident an “escape attempt.”

“It’s half a block of destruction from him trying to steer this big truck, which he probably doesn’t know how to drive very well, ricocheting off fences and trees,” Varao told the news wire. “Significant damage was done to the engine as well as private and public property.”

Surveillance camera footage obtained by local NBC-affiliate KCRA 3 shows the prisoner driving the vehicle through the parking lot with the emergency lights flashing and barreling through several obstacles in its path.

The incarcerated man then left the disabled fire truck, running back to the Rack-It Truck Racks location where he tried to carjack an employee who was exiting the premises, authorities say. Varao told the AP that the employee and the escaped prisoner “fought” briefly, but the employee was then able to break free and lock himself inside the truck rack store. Prison guards and deputies with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office were then able to apprehend the man, who had been loose for approximately 30 minutes.

The Rack-It employee—who was not identified in reports—had “very minor injuries” and was not taken to the hospital, according to the AP. The prisoner was hospitalized with injuries from the initial crash but was in good condition and expected to make a full recovery. Cal Fire and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released a statement saying that the prisoner was from Orange County had been incarcerated since 2015, but said his name was being withheld pending an ongoing investigation. Neither department immediately responded to emails from Law&Crime.

Van Thompson, the owner of the Rack-It location, told KCRA 3 that the stolen truck ran over two truck racks, which it then dragged through the lot causing sparks to fly and likely hindering the prisoner’s ability to control the vehicle.

“He was probably in here 30 seconds at the most,” Thompson said. “Did a lot of damage in 30 seconds.”

California has been running its incarcerated firefighter program since 1915. The program, which has been touted for saving the state as much as $100 million per year, has been criticized for paying extremely low wages for very dangerous work. Three participants in the program have died fighting fires in the state since 2017, according to a Sept. 2020 Vox report.

The Los Angeles Times reported that there are more than 900 people currently involved on one of 62 “inmate firefighter crews.”

[image via YouTube KCRA screengrab]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.