Fireboys is about the young men who help fight fires in California for basically no pay and zero future reward for their service. These are incarcerated teenagers, drafted into the Cal Fire program with the promise of a shortened sentence and assistance with restitution payments to the victims of their crimes. Those who embrace it find purpose, belonging and a new profession.
There’s only one problem: As ex-felons, many of them are ineligible to have their records expunged and thus unable to re-enlist as firefighters in the program once they graduate. Co-directors Drew Dickler and Jake Hochendoner capture the stories of several men, with a focus on Chuy Hernandez and Alex Bailon, two who find success and, in one case, some level of frustration after release. Fireboys is a focused, thoughtful movie that does a great job capturing the important, human details of a big problem that exists in the shadow of a truly massive problem.
“Every year, California burns,” the opening text reads. Over 8,700 prisoners are brought into camps to fight the fires. Pine Grove, the subject of this documentary, houses about 80 youth prisoners. Participating at Pine Grove is a reward of sorts of having displayed growth and good behavior. There is more freedom here compared to being in regular detention. Of course, the downside is you’re occasionally sent into the face of a roaring blaze to help create fire breaks, which is pretty terrifying.
The California fire season has become increasingly worse in the past decade, and the state has had difficulty hiring enough firefighters to control what they can of the massive blazes. They’ve fallen back on using incarcerated workers. But these workers are only paid 25% of what normal firefighters make, most of which is garnished. It’s a social justice issue on which the documentary sheds light.
It’s not all bad: Chuy and Alex both find purpose out in the brush, wielding chainsaws to stop fires. They develop expertise and camaraderie in their roles. They’re unique. Not everyone who takes up the program wants to pursue firefighting professionally once they’re released, and some even wash out over the course of the film. These types of programs have a demonstrably positive benefit for those who embrace their participation in them.
Still … they’re not paid a fair wage for the level of work they do, and the fact that it’s still difficult for them to be rehired into this progression after release is like ripping from them the positive environment that helped them grow while locked away. A 2020 change to the law made it easier for men with non-violent felonies to return to Cal Fire after release, but the fact remains that there are still men prevented from using their knowledge to help ameliorate a large and lasting problem. It speaks to the way many laws punish convicted people after they’ve done their mandated time and ostensibly paid the price for their crime.
Fireboys only touches on some of the larger issues. It’s intelligently focused on Chuy and Alex, and how those issues specifically affect them. The documentary is fleet and informative, never feeling like an information dump or even a call to action. It’s a story about the inequities of our system, through the eyes of those trapped in it.
Fireboys is available as part of the Heartland Film Festival’s online offerings from Oct. 7 to Oct. 17.
In-person screenings will be held at 3:05 p.m. EDT on Friday, Oct. 8, and 5:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Oct. 14, at Living Room Theaters.