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9 things to know about California's inmate firefighters

The Department of Corrections has touted that over 2,000 inmates and 58 youth offenders are currently combating wildfires in the state.

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Inmate firefighters have been helping the community firefighters from around the region combat raging California wildfires.

The Department of Corrections has touted that over 2,000 inmates and 58 youth offenders are currently combating wildfires in the state. These firefighters have been trained as wildland firefighters and have received the same entry level training that seasonal CAL FIRE firefighters receive.

The practice of having inmates combat wildfires is not a new concept, but the program has helped produce a new program that could potentially help rehabilitated inmates use their new firefighting knowledge.

1. Inmate firefighters date back to World War II

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the history of inmate firefighters goes back to World War II. With the work force for CAL FIRE was depleted at that time, the CDCR provided a workforce. Inmates occupied temporary camps to augment the amount of firefighters.

According to CAL FIRE, they have authority to operate 39 conservation camps statewide and 196 fire crews year round due to the cooperative efforts with the CDCR and the Division of Juvenile Justice. These crews can respond incidents like wildfires, floods, and search and rescue.

The actual conservation camp program that inmate firefighters are part of dates back to 1915, when CDCR road camps were established. At that time, the camps were meant to provide able-bodied inmates a chance to work on projects throughout the state.

2. There are camps in 29 counties

There are 44 conservation camps for adult offenders, one for juvenile offenders, and three adult offender camps that house females, according to CDCR.

Thirty-nine adult camps are jointly managed by CDCR and the CAL FIRE. Five camps are jointly managed with Los Angeles County Fire Department.

They are located in 29 counties and can house up to 4,522 adult inmates and 80 juveniles, which can make up 219 fire crews. A typical camp houses five 17-member firefighting crews.

According to CDCR spokesperson Alexandra Powell, there are almost 3,400 inmates currently working at fire camps.

3. An average year yields 3 million hours in emergency response work

For an average year, the CDCR claims that the program provides about 3 million hours responding to fires and other emergencies and 7 million hours in community service projects. Their services saves California taxpayers about $100 million.

The responsibilities of those in the camps can range from clearing firebreaks, restoring historical structures, maintaining parks, sand bagging and flood protection, reforestation and clearing fallen trees and debris.

4. Inmates must earn the right to work in these camps

Inmates must have non-violent behavior and conformance to rules while they are incarcerated.

The conservation camps only take minimum-custody inmates as volunteers and those volunteers are screened and medically cleared on a case by case basis before being accepted into the program.

They are screened on physical, emotional, and intellectual aptitudes, and potential crew members are evaluated twice for physical fitness training by a custodial agency and by CAL FIRE.

"No one is involuntarily assigned to a fire camp," said Powell in email.

5. Certain crimes make you ineligible for the program

Any inmate can apply but not every inmate can be eligible. Inmates must have minimum custody status, a status based on good behavior, conforming to prison rules, and participating in rehabilitative programs.

"Each volunteer inmate is evaluated individually to ensure that all those selected for the camp program are willing to be team members with nonviolent behavior, even if their original conviction was for a violent crime," said Powell in email.

"Disqualifiers include inmates who have committed arson, rape, or sex offenses, as well as those with active warrants, medical issues, or whose cases are of high notoriety."

6. Inmates considered for fire crews go through training from CAL FIRE

The inmates considered for fire crew positions are evaluated for physical fitness by CDCR and trained in firefighting techniques by CAL FIRE. These include a week of classroom instruction and a second week of field exercises.

They cover wildland fire safety and attack, hand tool use, teamwork, and crew expectations. Once on a fire crew, they have a minimum of four hours-per-week in advanced training.

7. Inmate firefighters could still be employed by CAL FIRE

It is possible for an inmate firefighter to be employed by Cal Fire, even with a felony conviction or incarceration. According to Powell, a felony conviction or incarceration does not necessarily disqualify someone for employment with CAL FIRE.

A new program was approved this year that is implementing a Firefighter Training and Certification Program for participants at the Ventura Training center, located at Ventura Conservation Camp.

"Trainees will be former offenders on parole who have recently been part of a trained firefighting workforce housed in fire camps operated by CAL FIRE and CDCR," said Powell in an email to ABC10.

"VTC will provide advanced firefighter training, certifications and job readiness support to create a pathway for former offenders to compete for entry-level firefighting jobs with state, federal and local agencies."

8. Inmates firefighters get paid for their labor with wages and credits

Inmate firefighters have an average pay of $2 per day, but, while fighting fires, inmates earn $1 more per hour.

The money earned by inmates at camps like Ventura Conservation Camp #46 is placed in a trust account for their use. They can send money home or save it until they are released to parole.

Inmates can also earn time off their sentence by working in the fire camps.

"Two days of credit for every day of incarceration (or 66.6%) are awarded to nonviolent offenders serving in fire camps, after they have successfully completed the requisite physical fitness training and firefighting training to be assigned as a firefighter to a Department of Forestry and Fire Protection fire camp or as a firefighter at a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation firehouse," said Powell in an email.

Offenders in the fire camps that are not firefighters earn one day of credit for every day of incarceration for good behavior.


9. Inmate firefighters work 24 shifts alongside CAL FIRE crews

When a wildfire occurs, at least one or two crews are sent on the initial dispatch with engines and aircraft. More crews can be deployed at the request of the incident commander.

During the wildfire, the crews are based in command centers with CAL FIRE for 24-hour shifts. After that shift, the crews return to get a chance to rest while other crews take their place for 24 hours.

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