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. There are also fewer incentives for inmates to risk their lives since a federal court broadened an early release program for firefighters to include other inmates.