SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Faced with a shrinking pool of inmates to help fight major wildfires, California is increasingly turning for new recruits to its state Conservation Corps, a program with roots in the Great Depression and a motto that promises "hard work, low pay, miserable conditions ... and more!"
Prisoners last year made up about 20 percent of California fire crews on several major blazes, where they used chain saws and hand tools to chew through tinder-dry brush and trees to stop the flames.
But the number of available inmates is declining because counties now oversee most lower-level felons under a law aimed at easing prison overcrowding. In addition, there are fewer incentives for inmates to risk their lives since a federal court broadened an early release program for firefighters to include other inmates.
The state is about 600 inmates short of the 4,300 prisoners who could be available for fire lines. So this year, the California Conservation Corps reopened a camp to train three crews of young civilians to do the same backbreaking work as the inmates. Corps Director Bruce Saito expects to create at least four more fire crews with roughly 15 members each by next summer and a half-dozen new crews during each of the next two years.
The corps has more than 1,400 members, but fewer than 200 currently work alongside local, state and federal firefighters battling blazes in rural areas.
The members include both men and women and range in age from 18 to 25. They enlist for one year and earn the state's minimum wage of $10 an hour. Military veterans can enroll until they turn 30.
Several recruits said they were drawn by the chance to work outdoors, to make a difference as they decide what to do next with their lives and to improve their chances of landing permanent jobs as wildland firefighters.
"You're kind of like sacrificing a lot to gain experience and get ahead in life," said 21-year-old Jacint Duenez of Camarillo.
Participants said the program lives up to its motto.
They recalled tense hours trying to stay ahead of a fire that burned more than 72 square miles (116 kilometers) on California's central coast and threatened the historic Hearst Castle. They hiked past "maybe a 100-foot wall of flames — you could feel the heat coming off of it," said Bobby Falagai, 23, of Oroville. Then they helped other firefighters save a home and outbuildings.
"You could barely see. You could barely breathe. Your eyes are burning. It's a great time," Duenez said without a hint of sarcasm. "I was having a lot of fun."
Conservation Corps firefighter Adrian Valdivia, 22, of Pomona hopes to turn his experience working under the direction of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection into a career battling wildfires.
"I think the future of the CCC is to fill more fire crews," Valdivia said. "Then CalFire can use the CCC as a potential hiring tool for future employees, so it works out for everybody."
The dependence on corps crews has occurred as the California drought drags into its fifth year and millions of trees have been killed by bark beetles, Saito said.
"Not in a great way, all those stars have aligned," Saito said. "There's increased need as those inmate crews decline in size."
The California corps bills itself as the nation's oldest and largest organization of its kind.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's original Civilian Conservation Corps put more than 3 million unemployed young men to work on natural resources projects between 1933 and 1942.
Decades later, California Gov. Jerry Brown used a similar model when he launched the California Conservation Corps while serving his first two terms in the 1970s and 1980s.
Brown, a Democrat, piggybacked that effort on the California Ecology Corps camps that his predecessor, Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan, created to allow conscientious objectors to perform public service instead of being drafted during the Vietnam War.
"It's pretty amazing that the organization's still here. We had some pretty close calls," Brown said while celebrating the corps' 40th anniversary in June.
It has survived repeated budget cuts, including one that closed the Butte County CCC camp in 2003. The camp in the Sierra foothills reopened this year with 57 firefighters. They joined 30 corps members who have fought fires since 2009 from a CCC camp in Ventura County.
Another 105 corps firefighters work with the U.S. Forest Service, about 30 more than last year. The numbers change as members enter and leave the program.
When they're not responding to fires, floods and earthquakes, corps members work on outdoor projects such as thinning forests and removing dead trees.
More than 550 were sent to recent big fires, with about a third actually fighting the flames. The rest help in firefighter base camps, setting up and tearing down temporary tent villages, serving hot meals, handing out equipment and keeping the camp clean.