Honorable Mention - 2021 Feature Picture Story/Essay
Valley View inmate firefighter Joshua Emerson - Merte waits for instruction before a backburn operation on the North Complex Fire in Butte County, California on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020.
Joshua Emerson- Merte was haunted by an act of violence he had committed three years earlier, the result of a drug addiction and poor choices. He didnt want to return home the same person he was before. When he heard about the bill that Governor Gavin Newsom signed to expunge the records of inmate firefighters and make it easier for them to become firefighters he knew that was what he wanted to do. What he didnt know was that the bill didnt come with any funding or programs to support the formerly incarcerated as they tried to navigate the new law.
Still, Josh knew he had been given an opportunity. And so later that fall, after the fire season ended, he filled out an application to be a seasonal firefighter for Cal Fire. He still had two more months of prison time but wanted to get a jump start. His captains told him to expect a decision in the spring.
Firefighting, Josh said, triggered a very different high than drugs: the gratification of hard work, a sense of purpose. He liked being outside, felling trees with his chainsaw and watching them teeter from the sky.
When Josh was finally let out, 5 days before Christmas it took him some time to adjust. His house felt unfamiliar. The people greeting him felt overwhelming. He only wanted to wear plain grey shirts, confused by logos and patterns.
Instead of his new world, he focused his energy on his Cal Fire applications while working for his familys appliance store. Soon, he started to settle into a routine. Going fishing with his younger brother, spending time with his new girlfriend BobbiLee. But as the months went by, he never heard from CalFire. He would call to check on his application, stop by local fire departments, and email his former fire captains but received silence. After nearly a year, Josh still wants to pursue his dream but hes told to keep waiting.
Gabrielle Lurie / The San Francisco Chronicle