Fire season in California requires help from many different hands, including the state's prison inmates.
The "Wall Fire" in Butte County has destroyed at least 17 structures and is threatening 5,800. Four people have been reported injured as a result of the blaze and approximately 4,000 people have been evacuated since the wildfire ignited on Friday.
There are 316 inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) amongst fire crews currently fighting the flames near the Oroville area, according to CDCR spokesperon, Bill Sessa.
In addition to the "Wall Fire", there are also 178 inmates assisting in the Winters Fire and 27 who are helping out with the aftermath of a fire in Tehama County.
How do inmates help during a California fire?
The inmate crews are part of the CDCR's Conservation/Fire Camp and have been assisting in fighting fires since 1946. Inmates who make the cut for the program, support state and federal government agencies in response to emergencies such as fires, floods and other natural or man-made disasters. The fire crews also work on conservation projects and community projects when not helping in an emergency. Crews will help maintain hiking trails, clear flood channels and cut down trees to prevent future fires.
The fire camps are considered a privilege and are only an option for minimum-custody inmates who choose to volunteer in the program. The inmates are non-violent offenders, who follow the rules while incarcerated. Inmates are heavily screened before selected to join and must be cleared medically, as well as be physically fit for the labor involved.
Once an inmate passes the screening and is accepted into the program, they are moved from the prison into a fire camp where they serve the rest of their sentence. There are 42 camps located in 27 counties across the state. Three of the camps house female inmates. Women currently make up about 200 inmates of around 3,800 participating in the program this year. However, the program can assign up to 4,300 inmates for fire camp duty.
The camps are constantly adding new inmates since many leave as they finish their sentences, according to Sessa.
Inmate firefighters work in crews of 12 to 14 people and their primary job during a fire is to cut fire breaks to stop the spread of a wildfire. Crews are usually working in backcountry, clearing brush.
Who trains and supervises inmate fire crews?
The inmates selected for duty are trained by both the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the CDCR. Individuals go through about a month of training where they learn firefighting techniques, fire codes, use of tools and basic fire science. To graduate from the program, inmates are evaluated during a four-mile hike while in full gear, carrying assigned tools.
When responding to a fire, inmates are under direct supervision of a CalFire captain. Correctional officers may be assigned to assist with a fire crew but normally don't go out to a fire scene, Sessa said. Officers typically wait at a command post during an emergency.
While at base camp, CDCR officers are in charge of supervising the inmates.
Are the inmates paid for their work?
Yes. They make $2 for each day in camp and $1 an hour when on the fire lines, which is the highest paid inmate job. They also benefit by earning credits for their time in camp and can be granted early release.
Are the inmates a safety risk to communities?
"We've never had a problem with crews in the community," Sessa said.
In fact, he explained there have been times where people stand out in front of their homes thanking the inmates for their service.
"When they're out there they're firefighters," Sessa said. "We tell them 'we'll treat you like a firefighter unless you make us treat you like an inmate.'"
If an inmate is disciplined for bad behavior, they are usually removed from the camp and don't come back.
While the inmates aren't deemed a threat to society, the inmates themselves risk their lives just like all firefighters.
In May, a 26-year-old inmate died as a result of injuries he sustained while responding to a fire in Del Norte County. He was the fourth inmate firefighter to die on the fire line since the conservation program was created.
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