From Prison into the Fire – An Unconventional Career Path

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Meet Angela Batts.  She is a Fire Fighter for the US Department of Forestry every year from May to November.  While most people start their career path out of high school or college, Angela’s life didn’t quite go that way.  But it was while she was serving an 8 year prison sentence she found where her own fire lies. 

This is her story in her own words.  

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Eight Years in Prison

It was 2003, I was looking at my second prison term and a 25-to-life sentence but luckily for me, I was given a break and was sentenced to 8 years. My new address was the California Institution for Women (CIW). I was very angry at the world, mostly myself, and not ready to accept the fact that I would not be eligible for parole until 2011. I was on a personal path of destruction, simple as that. I was hanging out with all the wrong people, doing drugs, and fighting. I was building a pretty big rap sheet for myself.

When in prison, you get a whole lot of time to self-reflect and I eventually came up with the notion that I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. It wasn’t until August of 2005 when I had the very sad revelation that I was going to catch my third strike and never walking out of these prison gates again. Scared of this thought, I knew right then I had to change my life and my way of thinking. I knew I had to make some long term plans of normalcy.

I inquired about the prison Fire Camp Program to just get out of prison and do something completely different. The Fire Camp Program is where they train prisoners to work as Wildland Firefighters. Once trained, the prisoners get to work on all the fires with the outside firefighters. This is a great program as it trains offenders to learn a good trade and the inmate firefighters are a vital part of forest fire containment. I wanted to embark on something that would challenge my very core. I knew this would be it, and I would get to leave the prison walls and do something good for myself and others.

At that time, I still had too much time left on my sentence to be accepted into the Fire Camp Program. So, I got my prison job reclassified and went to the fire house until I was able to go through the Fire camp program. When I was eventually accepted in the Fire Camp Program, I first had to go through the Physical Fitness Training, (PFT). This is a 6 week course where we get physically prepared for the grueling task of fire fighting. In sweat clothes, we run, do push ups and every other exercise in a timely manner to get us in physical shape. After we complete PFT, we are then sent to the Forestry portion where we do more of the same training but in our fire gear and boots. However, we also get to leave the prison walls to do timed hikes, deploy fire shelters, cut fire line and learn other aspects of fire fighting.

The training turned out to be harder than I expected! I was out there on the field crew struggling with blisters and bleeding, wanting to quit and thinking that maybe this wasn’t for me. I continued to push, hanging on to that thought of being scared and not wanting to be in prison anymore.

I was a great hiker and ranked at the top so I got to pick which camp I wanted to go to. I heard that Rainbow was more military style and I wanted to have structure so I chose Rainbow first.

Rainbow Fire Camp

In 2006, I graduated from my training and was sent to the Rainbow Fire Camp in Fallbrook, CA. Again, the experience was a little harder for me my first year but that feeling of being free from prison gave me the willpower to continue my path at camp. By the second year, I found my passion. From then on I was on a path of wanting to learn and know all that I could on how to fight fire safely, become the best firefighter I could for myself, and being an asset for my crew boss, my crew, and the program.

I was “1st saw” which is a leadership position second to the crew leader. I spent all my weekends and free time doing voluntary hikes to better my hiking and one-on-one training with the captains. After two years at Rainbow I got to switch camps and went to Puerta La Cruz Camp at (Warner Spring CA) to learn the ways of another camp and to experience fires in other areas. Between the two camps I gained so much knowledge and experience with room to learn so much more. I did a total of four years in fire camp and upon my release in 2011 I was sure and determined to pursue wildland firefighting as a career.

At the same time, I was scared to return to society after being gone for eight years so, I paroled to a Sober Living residence in Redlands to have stability and rules to live by. It took me awhile to adjust but I put myself through more fire classes at Chaffey College. I gained more knowledge and certifications towards a career I was so destined to achieve. Aside from school I ventured out to different stations introducing myself and asked questions on what to do and continued to keep up on my physical fitness with more voluntary hikes.

Soon I felt I was stable and strong enough to make it on my own, as I met my husband I returned back to my hometown in Big Bear. We had our struggles but we were making it in life and then I got pregnant with my daughter which stopped the pursuing of my career. I do not regret having my daughter, it was planned and I was so in love I just felt it was meant to be. June 5,2013 my daughter was born and everything in life seemed perfect once she came into this world.

Back in Prison

When my daughter was five months old, I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to help out a friend who was having a confrontation with another person. With my record and charges, I should have never been at that house. I should have left before things got heated when it was obvious things were going very wrong. I tried to help by breaking up a fight and ended up getting arrested. I was charged with five felony charges and again fighting a 25 to life sentence as a second striker.

With the help of a private investigator, enough evidence was retrieved to find that most of the charges were falsified and should have been dropped. However, the DA was not having any of it. The DA said that I was a habitual criminal because of my rap sheet and my two prior prison terms. The DA was determined to send me back to prison and had me sign a deal where I wouldn’t have to spend 25 years to life. I signed for attempted trespassing and the attempt to commit G.B.I. (Great Bodily Injury). With a prison term of 16 months with two prior strikes.
I was completely devastated and I could not believe that I was going back to prison for the third time. I thought I had a hold of life, but I got too comfortable and forgot where I had just come from. I went back to C.I.W. Getting classified for a job was taking so long that by the time I went to get classified to go back to fire camp I was told I did not have enough time.

I was very disappointed but determined to be a part of the fire camp program again, and with determination, I ended up having the wonderful opportunity to become a PFT trainer. Not only was I able to keep up with my physical fitness,( I lost 67 pounds) I got to work on my leadership skills and got to interact and help other women with their struggles. I taught them what worked for me and I found this to be more rewarding than going back to fire camp.

I have to believe that everything happens for a reason. I think that it was God’s plan for me to not have things go my way this time around. With a prior camp experience, I was able to stay as a PFT trainer and I was able to touch the hearts of many and motivate them with my fire stories and experience out on the fire line, many women were extremely excited about the prospect of fighting fires and couldn’t wait to get to Fire Camp. But it wasn’t just me, we had an awesome coach, Coach Nolan, and an awesome PFT training crew. I loved my partners, Kimberly Long, Sonja Keys, and Emilee Smith, I learned so much from them also.

Out Again (for the last time!)

I paroled October 10,2014. When I returned home, my daughter wanted nothing to do with me. I was a stranger to her and she was scared of me. This was the most hardest transition for me. My husband and I lost our house and we had to start completely over. Being the only source of income and taking care of our daughter my husband was able to get us a small one bedroom home for us to rent. I was not quite ready to jump back into working because I just wanted to try to regain a relationship with my daughter. I cried everyday and fought hard to not give up. It ended up being about three months before my daughter would let me hold her. I had screwed up and it broke my heart everyday. It was very hard to accept that I had done this to myself. This was a consequence I had to live with. I couldn’t blame anyone or be mad at anyone but myself. The constant daily rejection made me feel that I had failed as a mother.

House Fire

Three weeks after coming home I woke up in the middle of the night to our house being on fire. Hysterical, I woke up my husband and he quickly grabbed the baby. We ran downstairs and out of the house as quick as we could and just as we got to the end of the driveway the house engulfed in flames. The Fire Department said if we didn’t get out exactly when we did, we would all be dead. It was then, we had really lost everything. Sentimental pictures were the hardest to accept because these things are not replaceable. Red Cross had set us up in a motel for about a month, gave us money for food, hygiene items, and clothing. They also set up an appointment for me with Catholic Charities for housing help. Because of a fire tragedy, we were approved to be given $2000.00 for deposit and rent into a new home. We were blessed with a bigger and nicer home with cheaper rent and the whole community got together and donated so much to me and my family. Furniture, clothes, etc.

I was starting to feel depressed and did not understand why I was going through all these trials and tribulations with one problem after another. Still pushing forward we eventually got situated into our new home and my daughter was starting to come around months later. While I was incarcerated my husband had told me the news that my daughter was having seizures. So with all that going on, I had to also make it a priority to do all that I could to find out what was causing the seizures and find out how to deal with them and what to do. When I experienced my first seizure with her, I broke down and it was then I realized that enough is enough and I really needed to get it together. All of these tragedies were making me angry and feeling pity for myself, which I knew was wrong. I did not want to live the life of struggling and barely making it anymore so I could not give up on my passion and had put it to the side long enough despite everything. I knew I could live a better way of life if I could just achieve the one thing in life I had that meant everything to me.

Fire Fighter (on the outside)

In May, 2015 I went to The Wildland 59 Fire Academy at Victor Valley College. Upon completion of the academy, I gained all of the necessary certifications with a CPR/First Aid class aside from the academy to apply for a job with The United States Forest Service. I ended up on a type 2 hand crew, called The Mojave Greens when the fires were happening in Big Bear California. I was away from home for six weeks fighting fire. It was hard on my husband and daughter for me to once again be gone, but I begged my husband to bear with me and to please be patient. I knew in my heart that this was the opportunity and stepping stone I needed to land a job with The United States Forest Service, as it is not easy. He supported me as I made the sacrifice to be away from my family which was hard on me also as I was learning that this is the life of a firefighter at times.

While I was on crew I finally got that email where I was offered a position with The United States Forest Service as a Forestry Technician on an engine at station 34 in Mill Creek, Mentone, California. I had a tentative start date of August 9, 2015 but was having trouble with getting my background cleared so I was faced with another challenge. I did not give up because I knew that God had not brought me this far for my dream not to come true. Eventually I got cleared and started my job on the engine September 20,2015. I was in shock and could not believe it! I was on an engine working as a paid firefighter. I experienced and learned so much more and am so eager and ready for next season so I can learn more.

I am now able to provide for my family and with my husband and I both working, we now live comfortably. My relationship and bond with my husband has gotten so much stronger making it easier to get through struggles and challenges together. My relationship with my daughter is amazing, and I was able to take care of all her needs getting her to a neurologist who put her on seizure medication called Kepra. She has not had a seizure since she has been on her medication and she will be cleared off of her medication in two years provided she has no seizures during this time frame. I love my life, my family, and my job as a Wildland Firefighter!

What a journey this has been for me to get to where I am today. My new goal now, with writing this short memoir and sharing my story, is a deep hope that it will change the lives of others. Maybe not by just following in my exact footsteps, because my walk of life is not that of the choice of everyone, but maybe by giving you hope, determination, or strength to change your way of thinking, or just by loving yourself and believing that you deserve so much more in life than being in prison or being in a revolving door like I was. With determination and a strong belief in yourself, you can overcome and do anything you want in this life.

         

For I am a proud Wildland Firefighter for The United States Forest Service!

Angela Batts, US Forest Service

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