Josh worked as a medic and a chain saw operator, carrying the heaviest equipment and making sure his crew stayed safe. He’d done these jobs at some of the state’s worst infernos, including the Camp Fire of 2018 that leveled Paradise (Butte County) and the Zogg Fire of 2020 that ripped through Shasta County.
For more than a century, California had increasingly come to rely on the incarcerated to pitch in on a growing wildfire crisis that threatened to overwhelm the forces of Cal Fire. Now, in a canvas tent at the Butte County fairgrounds, Josh unlaced his work boots and balled up his jacket to use as a pillow. Jamming in earbuds, he fiddled with his handheld radio, searching for news from his hometown of Redding.
The other men unrolled black sleeping bags. Each one of them, Josh knew, was trying to atone for a wrong. There was the red-headed man who’d been driving drunk when he struck and killed someone. The Orange County surfer whose addiction to opioids had led him to armed robbery. The father from Los Angeles who was missing watching his 5-year-old daughter grow up. Josh, too, was haunted by an act of violence he had committed three years earlier, the result of a drug addiction and poor choices.
None of the men wanted to return home as the people they’d been before.
That same week, Gov. Gavin Newsom had traveled to fire-scarred Butte County, where he signed AB2147 at a blackened picnic table surrounded by so much ash that he appeared to be holding a news conference in the snow.
Years in the making, the law created a path for prison firefighters to clear their criminal records by withdrawing their original plea. If a judge granted their application for expungement, they would have a better shot at being considered for professional firefighting jobs — along with 200 other careers that required state licenses.
Technically, people with felony convictions were already eligible to become professional firefighters; over the last three years, a training academy in Ventura County has helped 67 onetime prisoners find jobs with fire agencies. But they have been the exception.
The legislation “will give those prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession that they’ve been trained in,” Newsom said at the news conference, held a few miles from the fairgrounds where Josh’s crew slept. “A small number of people didn’t feel it was appropriate to give these folks a second chance. But the good news — what’s fortunate — is that enough did.”
The bill Newsom signed, though, didn’t come with any funding or programs to support the formerly incarcerated as they tried to navigate the new law. Nor did it contain plans to measure its effectiveness by counting or tracking the men and women who sought to clear their records.
Still, it had passed, and 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, using another prisoner’s resume as a template for his own. On the paper application, he wrote his reason for leaving his current job: “Parole.”
He had two months left on his sentence, but wanted to set his new career in motion as soon as possible.
His captains told him to expect a decision in the spring.
Josh was young but had already spent much of his adulthood in prison.
In 2017, when he was 22, he got in a fistfight with his uncle over money Josh had loaned him and landed in Shasta County Jail for two months.
Two weeks after his release, after drinking a bottle of vodka, he beat up a stranger in downtown Redding. All he remembers, he says now, is setting out to buy cigarettes for his mother. According to the police report, he wandered into a parking garage and attacked a man who refused to give him a ride home.
When the man fought back, Josh bit his ear, tearing off a chunk. Josh apparently fled, and when he woke up the next morning, he was confused about what had happened. He worried he’d miss his first day at a new construction job.
Blacking out hadn’t been unusual for Josh at the time. When he was 15, he’d started binge-drinking and doing drugs — marijuana, then methamphetamine. Back then, he looked haunted. He was skinny and couldn’t look anyone in the eye. He stuttered when he talked.
It got to the point where his mother, Sharlene Emerson, wouldn’t trust him with a house key, instead leaving the front window of their rental unlocked. She had raised him alone; Josh had never met his biological father. With her support, Josh had tried drug counseling and rehab. Nothing stuck.
After the parking garage attack, the Shasta County district attorney charged Josh with violent assault for causing “permanent disability and disfigurement and deprivation of a limb.” Prosecutors also alleged vandalism, saying Josh had, earlier that same evening, thrown a barstool through two windows at a brewery. He couldn’t remember doing that, either.
His mother was devastated, both by the charges against Josh and by his inability to overcome his struggles with addiction. Sharlene called her oldest son her “monkey boy” because, as a child, he liked to scale the furniture in their small apartment. He was a charming and spirited kid, with a sunny demeanor.
Having given birth to Josh at 16, Sharlene also saw Josh as her protector. She was a single mother raising three kids alone, and so Josh became the man of their house. He never complained about being asked to repair the squeaky yard gate or replace the porch light, just out of Sharlene’s reach. He made her feel safe. His crimes shocked her.
“That wasn’t my son at all,” said Sharlene, whose parents had also struggled with addiction. “I hate drugs. I seriously hate drugs.”
A judge sentenced Josh to six years and eight months in prison. There was a possibility he could be released early, if his behavior was good. Josh turned around in the courtroom to see his entire family — his mother and her ex-husband, his younger sister and brother, both aunts, grandparents — crying.
Sharlene had been so shocked by the verdict that she could barely register her own screams. The court bailiff demanded that she be quiet. Her son disappeared through a side door in shackles.
Josh relapsed once, a year after arriving at prison, when his bunkmate offered him a crack pipe. After that, he vowed to stay clean. During phone calls, his mother had shared news of his old friends overdosing on fentanyl and heroin.
Josh didn’t want to die like them. He also knew that if he got another strike — he already had two from that drunken 2017 night — he could spend the rest of his life locked up, under California’s “three strikes” law.
So he began to study. He earned his high school diploma, then enrolled in general education community college courses taught at the prison. Wanting to do something positive, he grew out his dark blond hair to donate to a nonprofit group that helped people through cancer treatment.
He wrote long letters to his family, tracing the outline of his hand on the back of each one. In March 2019, he wrote to his mother that he thought of her every time he saw the moon. She wrote back that his toddler brother, Caleb, liked to kiss a photo of Josh saved on her cell phone. He encouraged her to have faith in God and promised her that everything would be fine.
Soon after, she wrote with news that his grandfather — the only father figure in his life — had been diagnosed with dementia. Josh penned him a special card for Father’s Day, writing, “I love you more than anything. I can’t wait ’till we can go out on your boat and go fishing together.’”
As life in Redding moved on without him, Josh got a job as a chapel clerk, taking attendance at the prison Mass. He got baptized for the second time, hoping it would make up for the first: Swayed by proselytizers at the Mount Shasta Mall, Josh had been dunked in holy water with a drug pipe in his pocket.
But nothing changed Josh like making it to fire camp. Originally, he’d been told he wasn’t eligible for the state’s prison firefighting program, because he had two violent crimes on his record. So he hadn’t pursued it. But then a lieutenant, who ran a nearby fire camp and saw promise in Josh, offered to review his case.
“I saw that he had messed up several times and was at the end of the rope, about to lose all opportunity,” recalled Lt. Ben Ingwerson, former commander of California’s Valley View fire camp in Glenn County, which closed last year because of low numbers, as prisoners with low-level offenses were released early under threat of COVID-19.
“The biggest thing we do, as a department, is get these guys ready to go back to the real world. The reality is that you can’t lock people up forever,” the lieutenant said. “We have to take initiative to prepare them, because they’ll be the ones living next door, or pumping gas next to you, or shopping in the next aisle at the grocery store. I wanted to give Josh a chance.”
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 chain saw and watching them teeter from the sky. He liked working with a team and igniting backburns, which starve the central blaze of vegetation to feast on, keeping it at bay.
The pay wasn’t great — the state gave him $2 to $5 each day on the handcrew — but it was better than the 15 cents an hour he’d made working in the chapel. After paying court fees and restitution, Josh managed to save $2,500.
In letters to his mother he penned in 2019, Josh included photos of his crew. One snapshot showed them battling the Zogg Fire, not far from his family’s home. In another, they hiked up a chaparral-studded mountain. Sharlene framed every one.
“A lot of people, all they remember of my brother is his past,” his younger sister, Trinity, said later. “Everything he’s done before — he can’t come back from that. But I want them to be able to see that he’s grown. He really is a good person.”
Five days before last Christmas, Josh finished his sentence, good behavior cutting his sentence down to three years. He departed Ishi Conservation Camp in Tehama County, about 20 miles east of Red Bluff, where he’d been moved after Valley View had shut down. Josh carried a blue protein-drink shaker, his release paperwork and fire certifications, and his leather firefighting boots.
He’d barely slept the night before, waking up at 2 a.m., then 4 a.m., riddled with nerves. He’d asked his mother to mail him pictures of their house, so he wouldn’t be thrown off by how it had changed in his time away.
Josh wondered whether he would fit in at home and if he could stay clean outside prison. When he heard from Cal Fire, he hoped, things would fall into place. The thought calmed him as he stepped outside into the brisk winter morning.
California has run conservation camps for 106 years. They gained popularity during World War II, when incarcerated men supplemented the state’s depleted firefighting force.
But even after the damage caused by blazes began escalating catastrophically in 2015, the state offered little opportunity for these same prisoners to pursue careers as firefighters upon their release — at least, not until AB2147.
The idea had come up in the past, but had failed twice before in the state Legislature because of pressure from two key groups.
California Professional Firefighters, a 30,000-member association of local firefighter unions, said it wanted to preserve the prestige of the profession. In the year leading up to the most recent bill’s passage, the coalition’s spokesperson, Carroll Wills, reiterated that prisoners in handcrews “were not firefighters.”
“Good for them that they can work to repay their debt to society in this fashion, but that’s not the same thing as a firefighter,” Wills told FireRescue1, an industry publication, in 2019. “Firefighters are sworn officers. They take an oath and can, and should, be held to the highest possible standard.”
The organization withdrew its opposition only after the term “firefighter,” when used in the bill to describe those who fought wildfires in prison, was replaced with “incarcerated individual handcrew member.”
Even more powerful opposition came from the California District Attorneys Association, which never stopped fighting the proposed legislation. A statement to the Legislature on behalf of organization members noted that prison firefighters were already given higher pay and shorter sentences.
While county district attorneys “understand the risks posed by wildfires and the need to use available resources to mitigate wildfire danger,” they believed the bill was too lenient with people who had committed violent offenses.
It wasn’t the first time a measure like it had faced backlash. In 2018, Cal Fire collaborated with the state corrections agency and the California Conservation Corps to open the training facility in the Ventura County city of Camarillo specifically geared toward readying former prisoners for entry-level firefighting jobs.
Today, the 18-month program has a competitive application process, with successful candidates receiving a $2,265 monthly stipend and health insurance. But at the time of its inception, the Camarillo City Council fought it, warning then-Gov. Jerry Brown in a letter of a “serious threat and an affront to … safety and security concerns.”
At legislative hearings for AB2147 in 2020, Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes shot back against the claims made by the unions and district attorneys. The San Bernardino lawmaker, who wrote the bill, said prisoners are treated as heroes on the fire line but snubbed as “convicted criminals” immediately upon leaving prison. The men and women, mostly Black and brown, “basically provide a free service to the residents of California,” Gómez Reyes said.
The Legislature sent the bill to Newsom as fires exploded again in a pandemic year that stretched resources. The vote was 30-0 in the Senate, with 10 lawmakers declining to weigh in, and 51-12 in the Assembly, with 16 votes missing. The Los Angeles Lakers, among other observers, celebrated the move, tweeting: “Human rights are everyone’s rights.”
But because opposition had been so fierce, the law passed without a detailed process for handling petitions for expungement. It lacked dedicated funding for programs or positions that could coordinate with the courts in California’s 58 counties. And it did not offer a means to track its success or failure.
As a result, state officials cannot say how many expungements have been granted in the year since the bill’s adoption, how many people are working through the process, and how many men and women have actually been hired into firefighting jobs.
“This was the third time we had tried it,” Gómez Reyes said, acknowledging the bill’s weaknesses. “We needed to trust that these inmates were rehabilitated. The fact that AB2147 is the only expungement process of its kind for a felony conviction in the U.S. is a big deal. It wasn’t an easy bill to get through.”
Implementation has been just as difficult. Typically, the California Judicial Council, the policymaking body for the courts, prepares rules and forms to standardize processes across the state. Without that guidance, each court must make up a process as they go, slowing everything down.
In this case, the council’s Criminal Law Advisory Committee didn’t take the first steps toward creating the needed standardized forms until this spring. A spokesperson for the council said the pandemic had slowed that process.
The forms only recently received approval, on Oct. 1 — more than a year after the bill originally passed — and won’t go into effect until Jan. 1. Without the forms, the committee noted in a report, formerly incarcerated people “may encounter difficulties in requesting conviction relief.”
Some former prison firefighters say they’ve been blocked or slowed from pursuing career opportunities. The Chronicle was following four other men who were at the Tehama County conservation camp with Josh, but they fell out of touch with a reporter over the course of a year. Some said they had stopped responding to messages, or didn’t want to tell their stories, because they were ashamed they hadn’t made it as a full-time firefighter.
They’d looked for an entry point with a variety of agencies: the U.S. Forest Service and local fire departments, along with Cal Fire. But for many of them, the phone never rang.
As one man explained in a Facebook message: “If I’m not pursuing firefighting then I just want to move on.”
Josh arrived home to Christmas lights.
Friends and family members waited out front by a pecan tree ringed by brown leaves. Josh’s mother had let the leaves pile up on the lawn, wanting to give Josh a task to complete — something to keep him busy. Sharlene’s colleagues at the Walmart Distribution Center in Red Bluff had said that Josh wouldn’t change, that he’d return to using drugs. She told them that this time would be different.
Even with the photos she had sent him, the house felt unfamiliar. Walking into the living room, Josh noted a new couch. On a bookshelf, portraits of him and his two siblings — 5-year-old Caleb and 17-year-old Trinity — were spliced together in a single frame. He had been gone for three years; his mother didn’t have any recent photos of her children together.
On another shelf, Sharlene had framed his firefighting training certification from Cal Fire, displaying it alongside a photo Josh had mailed her from fire camp. He wore a gray beanie, his arm slung around his friend, Jason Dixon, also recently paroled from fire camp. As soon as he bought a cell phone, Josh said, he would give Jason a call to see how he was adjusting.
As Josh moved through the house, family members trailed him. Sharlene showed him his bedroom, a storage closet off the living room that she and Trinity had painted white. Before prison, Josh had mostly slept on the couch. Sharlene had considered hanging Josh’s firefighting certificates and awards on the walls to inspire him, then decided that was all a bit too much. A stack of folded clothes rested on the full-size bed, store tags still attached.
Sharlene herded Josh back to the kitchen, handing him a paper plate of tri-tip steak and string beans, then back outside, where everyone was gathered. Josh ate and laughed. He showed off his muscled arms and stomach. He was proud he wasn’t gaunt anymore. His loved ones pushed closer, congratulating him and peppering him with questions.
Then his grandfather — gripped by dementia — demanded gas money. This confused Josh. He’d never acted this way before. Though Josh had known about the diagnosis, he hadn’t expected to immediately confront how severe his grandfather’s illness had become.
Moments later, an ex-girlfriend, standing at the fringes of the crowd cradling a month-old infant, asked whether Josh might be willing to help take care of her son. The baby wasn’t his and they hadn’t dated in years. Josh’s head swirled.
In prison, Josh couldn’t exit the shower room without his shirt tucked in or leave his bunk without his boots laced. Now, the choices and responsibilities before him felt overwhelming.
He ran through a mental list of everything he needed to do: buy a cell phone and a car, apply for a driver’s license, open a bank account, find a dentist and doctor to pass Cal Fire’s mandatory health screenings. His aunt and uncle had offered him a job earning minimum wage, $13.50 an hour, at their appliance repair store. He could do that for a little while, make some money.
Josh had considered applying for the Ventura Training Center, which offered unique support and mentorship. Since the program opened in October 2018, 100 of 138 graduates have gotten jobs: 59 with Cal Fire, eight with other fire agencies such as the Forest Service, and 33 in non-fire-related industries. Only one graduate has returned to prison.
But applying to the academy is rigorous, requiring an extensive application and letters of recommendation. It accepts fewer than 50 former prisoners each year, and its Southern California location is far from some men’s families and support systems.
Josh’s fire captains had told him it would be easier to focus on going through the expungement process from Redding.
Soon, he hoped, he’d hear from Cal Fire.
In the first few months of this year, as Josh was readjusting to life in Redding, another former prison firefighter was preparing to become the first to test California’s new law.
Jose Santana, 39, would face the same Santa Barbara County judge who had sentenced him to five years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon in 2017. He hoped he could show the court he had become a better man. Like Josh, Santana had been addicted to methamphetamine and had been too drunk and high to remember the attack that sent him to prison.
Santana’s path back had begun at Mountain Home Conservation Camp in Tulare County. There were dogs on campus, snow in the winter, tall redwoods. One of the trees was so wide, he remembers, all 16 men in his crew could fit inside with room to spare. By the time Santana was paroled in December 2019, he had worked his way up to lead chain saw operator, earning a coveted spot at the Ventura Training Center.
For the first time, he saw himself as he wanted his two young sons to see him. From his room at the camp, he wrote to them every night.
“You’re doing something that gives you so much confidence and self-worth, it drives up your self-esteem,” Santana said. “I thought, how awesome would that be if I could turn this negative experience into something really positive?”
As his Jan. 8 court date to change his original plea approached, Santana worked with a Santa Barbara County public defender, Adrian Galvan, who’d agreed to take on his case for free. Galvan believed in the new Assembly bill and wanted to help, but knew his jurisdiction, like most across California, hadn’t been prepared for petitions to start rolling through.
At Galvan’s suggestion, Santana had gathered dozens of pages of paperwork. This wasn’t necessary, but the two men knew it might help Santana’s case. Santana wanted to show the judge he was good at his job.
So he compiled his 16 certifications, proving he had received training in skills such as chain saw operation and first aid, plus three letters of support, including from his life coach and his prison fire captain, and a register of fire technology courses that he had recently completed.
But when Santana’s day in court arrived, the deputy district attorney assigned to his case, Cory Graves, argued that the documents didn’t prove anything. Because the law was so new, she said, she wanted official verification from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that Santana had completed fire camp in Tulare County. The judge agreed. But the department didn’t respond to requests for Santana’s records. His case was pushed back to Jan. 22, then to Feb. 5.
Finally, the court was forced to subpoena the state prison agency.
“A regular expungement has all the rules laid out, and most places have a pretty streamlined process,” Galvan said. “But this law requires the court to contact CDCR and have CDCR tell them whether the petitioner has successfully completed fire camp. Honestly? This should not be the impediment. It’s a sad commentary.”
When the records arrived, the deputy district attorney still wasn’t satisfied. She argued that, because Santana had committed a violent crime, expunging his record “wasn’t in the best interest of justice.” To Santana’s relief and elation, the judge disagreed and allowed him to change his plea.
Within weeks, Santana’s colleagues at the Ventura Training Center began approaching him for advice. They too couldn’t figure out the system to get an expungement. Did they need to hire a lawyer? What forms should they fill out? Where could they find those forms? What if corrections officials failed to confirm they had successfully completed fire camp, too?
“I explained the steps, and that a lot of paperwork isn’t written yet,” Santana said. “Santa Barbara said that, in a year, they’ll have it figured out. But right now, it’s not. People are having issues.”
It’s impossible to know how many former prison firefighters have been successful in getting their records expunged — or how many have started the process at all. Though Gómez Reyes’ Assembly office has said it will track these numbers, there’s no mechanism to do so. Ingwerson, the lieutenant who once oversaw Josh’s fire camp, said he hadn’t heard of anyone from his crews successfully completing the process.
“Josh is the first one that I’ve been waiting to hear from,” he said.
One morning in March, Josh climbed into his new Jeep with a mug of coffee and drove to his family’s appliance repair store in Redding. The job, along with the modest cash from fighting fires in prison, had helped him pay for the vehicle. It was 8:30 a.m. His shift didn’t start until 9, but he liked to arrive early.
Behind the cinderblock building, refrigerators, ovens, dryers, washers and other appliances were arranged in neat rows. Josh’s job was to fix the damaged ones and strip those beyond repair for parts. It was an unseasonably hot day. Josh wore a white tank top, jeans ripped at the knee and his leather fire boots, which had dulled without regular oiling.
Recently, he’d gotten an email from Cal Fire saying his application to be a seasonal firefighter on one of the agency’s handcrews had been “accepted.” Though the message had clarified in boldface, “This is not a job offer,” Josh had been so excited that he’d posted on Facebook: “Just a couple more months and I’ll be back on the fire line. … Can’t wait.”
Then a second email explained that his application had been placed in the lowest possible tier — category three — meaning he hadn’t provided acceptable documentation for any of the available jobs. Josh would swear that he had.
He panicked. He had already missed the first round of hiring, which had concluded in mid-February. Immediately, he wrote back, attaching the needed documents to the message. Then he called the number listed at the bottom of the email, to confirm his paperwork had been received.
No one picked up. He called again. In the end, he left five voice mails. He figured he’d try calling again the next day.
Josh wheeled a washing machine outside and hoisted it into the back of a dented brown truck. He opened his Snapchat account, username @JoshFire. He made a kissing face at the camera, then sent the photo to his new girlfriend, Bobbilee Ballinger. They had connected on Facebook. Ballinger, 28, had recently paroled, too. She managed a Carl’s Jr.
They enjoyed driving to Shasta Dam or up Clear Creek Road, where they’d park and talk. Sometimes they went out for drinks with her parents — Josh, now sober, always volunteered to drive — or rode go-karts at a local amusement park. Josh liked that Bobbilee understood the difficulties of life after prison, how the pieces didn’t always fit together as neatly as before, how progress could feel fleeting.
There was the time a white OnTrac delivery van pulled into the lot of the appliance store, and Josh, for a moment, recognized it as a prison vehicle, possibly dispatched to bring him back to Susanville.
Another time, as he drove to Walmart, a cop pulled him over for going 20 mph over the speed limit. As the red and blue lights strobed behind him, he called Bobbilee, telling her that while he hoped he’d see her again soon, he probably wouldn’t. The officer let him go with a verbal warning.
Now, at the appliance shop, Josh tucked his cell phone in his pocket. He stepped inside to replace the wiring on a heater. He fixed a washer that hadn’t been cycling properly because of a stuck sock.
On a recent afternoon, the prosecutor from his most recent case had stopped by the store to make a purchase. Josh recognized him and introduced himself. He told the man he “didn’t have any hate toward” him and knew he was “just doing his job.” Josh showed him photos from his prison days fighting fires. He thought it was always good to let people know he was doing better.
He was taking anger management classes on Friday evenings and meeting weekly with his probation officer. She’d given him $80 in Target gift cards that he planned to spend on a tie and a shirt with a collar, for when Cal Fire called about an interview.
Josh also planned to seek the expungement of his record, he told the probation officer. He just needed to stop by Shasta County Superior Court to ask about the process and pick up a few legal forms, which he couldn’t print on his own. He didn’t own a computer or a printer.
That March night, Josh’s family gathered around a fire pit made out of an old washing machine drum from the shop. The air had cooled, even had a chill to it. The family drank beer and seltzer water and smoked cigarettes. With each inhale, the tips flared orange in the dark.
Josh was chainsawing wood for the bonfire when Jason Dixon, his friend from fire camp, walked into the yard.
He’d been driving across Northern California, stopping into Cal Fire stations to introduce himself and drop off his resume. It was a desperate measure — hiring was done through Cal Fire’s headquarters, not through individual stations. But he wanted to feel like he had some control. Like he was being productive.
Josh had told Jason to come by when he passed through Redding. Standing beside Josh at the fire pit, Jason said the trip wasn’t working out as he’d hoped. Firefighters had shaken his hand but were vague about the hiring process. They told him they were glad he’d dropped by and that he just needed to wait. He’d hear back from the regional office soon enough.
“I’m doing everything I can, and I’m ready to work,” Jason said. “Just trying to let everyone know that I’m a hard worker. It’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Josh nodded. “They made it sound a lot easier in prison,” he said. “Like as soon as you get out, you have a job.”
“Not like that at all,” Jason said, shuffling from foot to foot.
“I have all these ambitions,” Josh said. “But it’s not as easy as they made it sound. We’ve got our applications in.”
The men fell silent. The fire crackled.
Josh kicked at the gravel, then said, “I guess we’ve done everything we can do.”
Josh turned 26 in May. When the clock struck midnight, he felt the impulse to bang pans together in the yard. This was the day he was originally set to be released from prison, before he was freed early.
He felt like he was doing well. He was proud of his accomplishments: his relationship, his Jeep, his sobriety. He’d started talking with a therapist and had completed the anger management classes.
He was building up his credit score, too, so that he and Bobbilee could rent a place together, maybe a house with a wraparound porch and a small backyard. He saw a future with her: marriage, children. But not until they were both off parole, with steady jobs and health care.
That evening, he got off work early and headed home. His mom had taped balloons along the fence. His sister, Trinity, was grilling burgers in the front yard.
“First birthday out of prison,” he said, taking a last drag of a cigarette that he stomped out in the yard with the toe of his boot. “I’m grateful as hell.”
Josh had heard from a few of his old colleagues from fire camp. The red-headed man, who’d gotten behind the wheel drunk and killed someone, had been admitted to the Ventura Training Center. So had the Orange County surfer.
Jose Santana, who had studied at the center and been among the first to get his record expunged under the new law, had recently gotten hired on as a seasonal firefighter — the same job Josh had applied for — in Cal Fire’s Tulare County unit, working with some of the same captains he’d had as a prisoner.
They had all wanted careers with Cal Fire — and now they were closer to fulfilling those dreams than Josh.
He had heard nothing back since his frantic email and five voice mails. Now, on his birthday, the yard was slowly filling with family and friends, evening light filtering through the leaves of a pecan tree as they ate burgers off paper plates and sang “Happy Birthday.”
In the months ahead, Josh would keep trying to become a firefighter, even as the radio filled with reports of big new blazes: the Caldor near Tahoe, the Dixie farther north. His former public defender offered to work on his expungement case for $1,000, which Josh would need to save. He helped his girlfriend care for her 16-month-old niece, and the couple discussed starting a business cutting trees and clearing mulch — closer to being a firefighter than fixing washers and dryers.
One day, Josh would drive past a crew from the Redding Fire Department working along the roadside, clearing vegetation. Josh knew he could do that job, so he applied.
At the birthday party, Sharlene placed a cream cake in front of her son and lit the candles. Josh held his breath for a moment, then blew them all out. He refused to say what he had wished for.
If he did, he said, it might not come true.
Lizzie Johnson is a former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Twitter: @lizziejohnsonnn