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Inmate FF injured battling Calif. wildfire faces deportation due to convictions

Bounchan Keola, who fled Laos as a refugee at the age of 2, was turned over to ICE after completing his prison term for second-degree attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm


This Dec. 19, 2017 photo shows members of an inmate firefighting hand crew hiking on their way to work near Montecito, Calif. An inmate firefighter who was injured battling the Zogg Fire faces deportation to Laos due to his criminal convictions.

Photo/Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

Sarah Ravani
San Francisco Chronicle

KERN COUNTY, Calif. — A California inmate firefighter who was injured while battling a wildfire near Redding in October faces deportation to Laos, a country he fled when he was 2, according to his attorney.

Bounchan Keola, 39, was battling the Zogg Fire on Oct. 2 when he was injured after a helicopter dropped water on a smoldering tree, causing it to fall on him and two others, records show. He suffered neck and back pain from the accident.

He was released from state prison on Oct. 16 after serving his full term and was immediately transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Despite being a permanent resident of the U.S., laws signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 make permanent residents and refugees with criminal convictions subject to deportations.

In 2001, Keola was sentenced to 28 years in prison for second-degree attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm, said Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

On Oct. 29, an immigration judge ordered Keola’s deportation to Laos. He’s detained at the Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility in McFarland ( Kern County). He has an interview with the Laotian Consulate on Dec. 22, but it’s unclear when he might be deported.

Keola’s case highlights the complexities of the nation’s immigration system. Keola fought during one of the worst wildfire seasons in state history, got injured and then was turned over to ICE after serving a full sentence. His experience isn’t uncommon. The Trump administration has tried to deport immigrants with criminal records, particularly those from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In March 2019, a group of Cambodian refugees in the Bay Area received summonses to show up to ICE where they were to be detained and probably deported. Dozens more were expected to be detained across the United States.

“His story is really similar to that of an entire generation of refugees that resettled in the U.S. from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam,” said Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus representing Keola. “He served his time. He had a pretty clean record when he was in prison.”

“He has no memory of Laos. If he is deported to Laos, I’m at a total loss as to what he would do,” Prasad said, adding that Keola doesn’t have any family in the country.

Keola is a Khmu, an ethnic group from the country’s north. His family fought alongside the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. In 1988, Keola and his family were refugees, and they moved to a housing project in Richmond when he was a child. They couldn’t speak English, Prasad said.

Throughout his childhood, Keola dealt with racism and bullying in school — an experience that many children from similar backgrounds faced, Prasad said.

“A lot of youth started banding together for protection,” Prasad said. “He was just very hopeless.”

Simas of the corrections department said the agency doesn’t determine the immigration status of inmates in custody. “Pursuant to state law, CDCR collects available information about an inmate during reception center processing when the inmate is placed in CDCR’s custody after adjudication,” she said.

ICE then determines whether to put a hold or detainer on a person and alerts the corrections department, Simas added.

While most local jails have stopped transferring people to ICE custody under California’s sanctuary law — which largely prohibits law enforcement from cooperating with ICE, unless an individual commits a serious crime — the state prison system still practices these transfers. In July, dozens of state lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop the transfer of people from state prison to federal immigration detention during the pandemic because of outbreaks at detention centers.

Newsom spokesman Jesse Melgar said in a statement: “We are unable to discuss individual clemency applications, but can assure that each application receives careful and individualized consideration.”

Jonathan Moor, a spokesman for ICE, said Keola was taken into custody upon his release in Sacramento.

“Based on his criminal convictions, Keola is an aggravated felon who is subject to removal and mandatory ICE detention,” Moor said in a statement.

At 16, Keola and a group of youths were in a car when they shot at rival gang members, killing one person and wounding a bystander. He was charged as an adult and accepted a plea deal.

Over the past few months, Keola has been on the front lines of several wildfires, including the CZU Lightning Complex, Bear Fire, Glenn Lightning Fire and Zogg Fire.

Reports obtained by The Chronicle showed that Keola’s injuries from the Zogg Fire stemmed from aggressive tactics that were intended to save lives and property but went tragically wrong.

The incident occurred when a crew of inmate firefighters slid down a steep grade to extinguish hot spots and clean up a burned landscape. That afternoon, a Cal Fire captain in charge of the crew requested a helicopter to drop water in the area because of concern of heavy fuels. The crew made a third request for a helicopter drop onto a large burning tree.

The inmate crew cleared the area before the drop except for four firefighters and their captain, who were upslope from the target tree, according to the report. As the helicopter dumped its load on the tree, a second fire captain saw the tree start to fall and yelled, “Tree.” But the warning was drowned out by noise from the helicopter.

Two firefighters, including Keola, were injured. The other firefighter sustained critical injuries to his head, neck and back.

Keola was airlifted that day to Mercy hospital in Redding and eventually discharged back to prison with neck and back injuries. He was placed in quarantine upon his admittance to a state prison in Sacramento, Simas said.


(c)2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

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