Bounchan Keola (Boun) served California as an incarcerated firefighter on the frontlines of the worst wildfires in state history. On October 2, 2020, a botched airdrop caused a tree to collapse on Boun crushing him and requiring him to be airlifted to a hospital. Days later, prison officials called ICE to arrest Boun and deport him to Laos, a country he fled as a refugee when he was two.
Boun defended California. Now, California must defend Boun. Demand that Governor Newsom pardon Boun protecting him from deportation and stop transferring Californians to ICE.
Visit bit.ly/DefendBoun for additional ways to take action.
Boun was born in Laos during the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Despite being a neutral country, the United States mercilessly carpet bombed Laos making it, even decades later, the most heavily bombed place on the planet. Boun’s family belonged to an ethnic minority, the Khmu, who lived in the remote mountains of northern Laos. Oppressed by the Lao government, the Khmu including Boun’s family fought alongside the United States hoping for freedom. Instead, the United States withdrew, abandoning them to be slaughtered by the Lao government.
At the age of two, Boun fled with his family across the border to a refugee camp in Thailand. Eventually, they were resettled in the United States as refugees. Boun grew up in an impoverished and violent neighborhood in Richmond, California. As a child, Boun tried to ignore the violence around him and focus on school. Bullies, however, relentlessly picked on him for not speaking English, wearing used clothing, and being Asian. Poorly funded schools lacked culturally competent resources to help refugee youth.
In the 6th grade, Boun and other Southeast Asian refugee youth began banding together for protection. By the time they were teenagers, they had grown into a gang fighting with rival gangs and engaging in petty crimes. Shootings and violence were so common that by the time he was in high school, Boun accepted that it was a matter of time before he’d be killed. Afraid and full of despair, Boun numbed himself with alcohol and also was ready to fight at the slightest threat.
One afternoon in April 1998, Boun was riding in a car with other youth when they saw members of a rival gang running towards their car. Panicking, they opened fire killing one person and wounding another. Although only 16, the District Attorney charged Boun as an adult. Facing a life sentence, Boun accepted a plea deal for 28 years in prison.
Boun carries a lifetime of remorse for the harm he caused to his victims, his community, and to his elderly parents who have waited 22 years to be reunited. Boun repeatedly applied to serve as a firefighter despite the incredible danger to make amends by protecting California and saving lives. Deeply dedicated to his job, Boun was quickly promoted and responded to countless fires in the community.
In 2020, California experienced the worst wildfire season in state history. Boun was on the frontlines of almost every major wildfire carrying heavy equipment up rugged terrain surrounded by smoke and flames to cut protective lines around communities. Despite the work being exhausting, Boun said knowing they were saving people’s homes and lives made it worth it.
On October 2, 2020, Boun was battling the Zogg Wildfire. A botched airdrop of water from a helicopter caused a tree to crush him, nearly killing him. Boun was airlifted to the hospital. With just days left on his sentence, prison officials could have allowed him to go home to his family and recover. Instead, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) put Boun in solitary confinement not allowing him to tell his family that he had been hurt and called ICE to come arrest him, Despite being a lawful permanent resident, his conviction made him subject to deportation.
Currently, Boun is in an ICE detention facility in McFarland, California and has received no follow up medical care other than Tylenol. He remains in excruciating pain unable to move his neck or lie on his back.
With a stroke of his pen, Governor Newsom can pardon Boun preventing his deportation and allowing him to come home and continue working as a firefighter. Governor Newsom can also ensure that this does not happen again by ending his voluntary cooperation with ICE.