State inmates play key role in fighting fires

California's fire-fighting efforts got a major, early workout this year as hundreds of thousands of acres across the state were burned and more than 100 homes were lost. State and federal firefighters in the trenches say the unprecedented outbreak of blazes-almost all of them caused by lightning strikes-may be just the beginning of a long, hot summer.

There has been a blizzard of numbers describing the magnitude of the problem, some of them conflicting. But the bottom line, according to the state, is that about 880,000 acres have burned since last month. As of mid-week, about 18,000 personnel, state and federal, were actively fighting about 80 active blazes. About 5,550 were state firefighters.

Among those on the fire lines, from first to last, are hundreds of state prisoners who perform some of the most dangerous fire-fighting chores in return for reductions in their sentences. The number of inmates fighting fires varies widely from day to day, depending on the extent of the fires. During the current emergency, an average of 2,200 to 2,700 adult inmates were on the fire lines each day. There also have been some 260 to 290 juvenile inmates, wards of the California Youth Authority, fighting fires. Los Angeles County also has an inmate fire fighting program.

At the height of the San Diego fire emergency last fall, some 3,000 inmates were on the lines each day.

"These crews provide critical support to the state's firefighting response, going where bulldozers and heavy equipment cannot go," Gov. Arnold Schwarzeengger said at the time.

"Inmate firefighters and CDCR staff at our institutions are an integral piece of the state's disaster response team. Fire camp crews are being activated and deployed as rapidly as possible. Firefighters are continuing to work around the clock to contain the Southern California fires and I want to extend my thanks for their bravery and dedication."

In addition to inmate fire crews, strike teams made up of CDCR fire captains, staff and fire engines have been deployed from fire departments at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, California Correctional Center in Susanville, Mule Creek State Prison in Ione and the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe, among others.

What's in it for the inmates?

"They get two days of credit (off their sentence) for every day served in the program," said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "It's a priviledge to be in the program."

The inmate fire fighters are selected from the conservation camps and minimum-security facilities. The inmates get special training, then head to dangerous fire zones, sometimes working 12-hour shifts, sometimes doing 24-hour stints before getting a break. They get paid $1 an hour; non-inmate fire fighters get $10 to $12, and overtime. For the budget-strapped state, inmate fire fighters are a bargain-by one estimate, they save the state some $80 million a year. There are about 4,500 of them; about 350 are women.

There is competition to get into the ranks of the fire fighters, and the inmates are carefully screened. They must be minimum-security prisoners, physically fit, and have no history of violent crime, including kidnapping, sex offenses, arson or escape, Thornton said. The requirement for physical fitness is serious indeed: Fire fighters often carry 40-pound packs and tools through tough terrain in triple-digit heat, not to mention the smoke, the flames and the constant danger.

But the tribulations are worth it. Their sentences get cut, they develop skills and camaraderie with professional firefighters, and they have a shot at seeking professional fire fighting jobs when they emerge from custody.

Estimates vary, but the inmates comprise 20 percent of the total state fire-fighting force, although the proportion sometimes is much higher.

Women inmates began joining the ranks of the male fire fighters in 1983 in San Diego, and now there are conservation camp programs for women in Malibu.

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