Prisoners in California Help Fight Wildfires

27 June, 2013

Welcome to American Mosaic from VOA Learning English.

I'm June Simms.

Today on the show we play summery music suggested by listeners. We also look a New York City program that provides information to immigrants interested in American citizenship. But first we go to California to learn about a program that helps prisoners and the public at large.

California Prisoners Fight Fires

The western state of California is known for wildfires. This year the fire season has been extremely active. California has some of the most experienced firefighters in the country because of its high risk of fire. Prisoners in California also take part in firefighting efforts. Mario Ritter tells us how and why.

Every morning prisoners in orange clothing go to their jobs as fire fighters. If there is no fire at the time, they carefully clean all the tools needed to make firebreaks. Firebreaks are barriers made of grass or land that slow or stop the spread of fire.

In California, prisoners who have no history of violent crime and are in good physical condition may train and work as firefighters. They may get their prison sentences reduced in exchange for their help fighting fires. But that is not the only appeal of the work program, says Louie Orozco, who was sentenced to prison for robbery.

"It's pretty exciting. It's an adrenaline rush, it's fun at the same time. You're expected to go out there and fight fires. Climb thousands of feet up hills, rocky terrain, and sometimes sandy terrain, with tools you got anywhere between30 and 50 pounds of gear on your back."

Prisoners in California have been working as firefighters for more than 60 years. They also serve the community in other ways, says Captain Mike Mahler of the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"Our crews are used during floods, search and rescue operations. They put in about 2.5 million hours a year just in emergency response alone."

More than 4,000 California prisoners work as firefighters. California is not the only state that uses prisoners this way. But, the state's program is seen as a national model.

The prisoners often work side-by-side with professional firefighters. Captain Kevin Krauss has been supervising prisoner firefighters for seven years.

"I treat them like firefighters. I demand they act like firefighters and I tell them if they want to be heroes, they can be out here, if they want to be zeroes they can go back and they can be incarcerated inside. It's their choice."

Captain Krauss says most of them choose to stay with the difficult and often dangerous job, instead of spending their days behind prison walls.

"They get baptized by the devil out on the line. It's hot, it's dry, it‘s physically demanding. (There is) Sleep deprivation."

The prisoners receive a small wage. The program began as a way to reduce the cost of fighting fires. Now, however, the program helps rehabilitate prisoners, providing them with skills helpful in ways beyond firefighting.

Louie Orozco says this experience has helped him believe in himself.

"Mentally I see that I can do things I never thought possible. Climbing thousands and thousands of feet up a mountain with gear on your back."

The prisoner firefighter will turn 40 this year. He will be released from prison in six months. He says he is too old to keep fighting fires. But Mr. Orozco also has some graphic design skills he learned from another prison program. He plans to use that skill to start a new life.

And he will know that after fighting wildfires, he can face any problems that might come with life after prison.

Call Center for Citizenship Questions

Every day in America immigrants become citizens. Last year, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service swore in almost 700,000 new citizens. 84,000 of them became Americans in the state of New York.

And the United State Congress continues to struggle with an immigration reform bill. Steve Ember tells us about one New York City program that tries to clear up questions about citizenship.

"There's no law'll be months before the legislation passes."

That's a volunteer operator at the City University of New York's immigration call center. It is receiving thousands of calls, many about the latest on the immigration bill.

Volunteers from all cultures and backgrounds have stepped up to help answer the phones.

"I'm handling Spanish calls and Brazilian, too. People who speak Portuguese. And we are handling calls from all over New York, but even from Idaho."
Prisoners in California Help Fight Wildfires
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the volunteers that they were taking part in something positive.

"This country needs more immigrants. We've got to make sure that immigrants that are here get a chance to participate and build our country. And Washington's crazy in terms of trying to keep the very people out that build our country and are our future, so you're helping a lot."

The call-in program has had an effect. One new citizen is Emma Dyer who emigrated from Panama. Emma found out about the call-in program on television.

"Being a citizen, people know your voice counts, you can make change. That piece of paper means to be a lot of things. Number 1, I can go to the airport - any airport – buy a ticket going to anywhere and coming back with no answer and no question because I have my passport."

That piece of paper Emma Dyer talks of is the top goal. New citizens are sworn in almost every week in New York City. One recent ceremony brought joy mixed with tears for 150 new citizens from 32 countries, including Ghana, France and Venezuela. Several speak about the experience.

"I've gone a long way to come (to) this, and I will cherish the American citizenship right now."

"To be part of many nations like put together I think is what it means to be American, especially here in New York City."

"And then you come to a ceremony where you are officially American. It feels so strange. It's so emotional, too, because you have grown to love a country so much. Everybody loves the United States."

These new citizens represent America, a nation of immigrants from all parts of the world. And for many, it began with a phone call.

Hot Summer Songs

June 21 officially marked the beginning of summer season in the northern hemisphere. School is out and the days are hot and long. For many young people, summer season also means party season.

So what music will they be dancing to? What songs will they take on vacation? Which songs might define summer 2013?

Last year at this time, the hot songs included Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" and, of course, Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe."

We asked our listeners for their ideas about good summer songs. One listener suggested Ke$ha's song "Die Young." It suggests the temporary nature of having fun and being young. Kesha sings: let's make the most of the night / like we're gonna die young.

Singer Taylor Swift
The country-pop artist Taylor Swift also sings about being young on her song "22." Swift sings about staying up all night, dancing and ignoring responsibilities. The lyrics go like this: we're happy free confused and lonely at the same time /
It's miserable and magical oh yeah /
Tonight's the night when we forget about the deadlines, it's time

Another listener suggested "I Love It" by the two-member Swedish electronic band Icona Pop. This song is on American radio a lot right now. Who knows? It might become this year's summer anthem.

I'm June Simms. Thanks for your music suggestions. We want more! What songs do you think will be the hottest hits of this summer? Tell us by clicking the Contact Us link on our website Or send an email to

This program was written and produced by Caty Weaver and Madeline Smith. Join us again next week for music and more on American Mosaic from VOA Learning English.