Fate unclear for Calif. inmate firefighting crews

State officials in California are concerned that a move to save money and reduce the state's prison population will have major consequences during firefighting season, jeopardizing a program that puts 4,300 state prison inmates on the front lines of wildland blazes each year.

The inmate crews provide a vital work force in a state where wildfires burn hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of acres in a typical year and have become even more important as budget cuts have reduced the number of seasonal firefighters employed by the state.

It's the largest such program in the nation, with inmates making up nearly half of California's wildland firefighters. But it's endangered by Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to shift responsibility for tens of thousands of lower-level offenders from state prisons to county jails to save the state money and to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a lower court in ordering California to reduce overcrowding in its prison system.

Brown's plan targets lower-level offenders, the same inmates who generally qualify for the prisoner fire camps.

Officials say the program will not be affected this fire season because the inmate shift has not yet been funded. They are hoping county sheriffs will send inmates to the camps in future years, but say that's uncertain.

"It's a tough issue," said Oscar Hidalgo, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "We're doing everything we can to maintain it, either through the counties or even looking very closely at eligibility for those inmates and if we can somehow retain those inmates in fighting fires."

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says the program is even more important because $31 million in budget cuts have eliminated 730 seasonal state firefighters, leaving 2,400.

That means there will be three firefighters on each of the department's fire engines during the peak fire season, down from four, said spokesman Daniel Berlant. The department will keep its 3,300 full-time firefighters despite the budget cuts.

The department's full-time and seasonal firefighters operate fire engines, bulldozers, helicopters and airplanes. But it is the inmate crews that do the dirty, exhausting work of cutting and scraping fire lines with hand tools.

"They go on the front line on the fires. Their job is to go around the perimeter of a fire and clear brush, so we put a doughnut ring around the fire so there's nothing left to burn," Berlant said. "They really are the backbone of firefighting."

Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming are among states that use inmates to fight fires.

But California's inmate firefighter program is larger than many states' entire prison populations, said Alison Lawrence, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

From the first permanent firefighting camp in 1946, California's program has expanded to 39 state-operated camps and another five run by Los Angeles County. Two of the state's camps are staffed by female inmates and two by juvenile offenders.

Most inmates earn $1.45 a day when they are in training or doing community work projects. They earn $1 an hour when they are called out to fight fires. Many also qualify for two days' credit toward earlier release for each day they spend in the camps.

There are no recidivism studies on fire camp graduates, but Correctional Capt. Rae Stewart, who coordinates the program, said most benefit from the self-discipline, teamwork and vocational training.

"I'm a little older, but you see a lot of kids come in here, they've never worked before," said 53-year-old David Leach, who has spent the last 2 1/2 years as an inmate firefighter based northeast of Redding in Shasta County. "They come in here and develop a good work ethic."

Leach is due to be paroled next month to Los Angeles County and already has a job waiting with a tree service company, building on skills he learned as a firefighter.

Chris Anderson, 38, earned an associate of arts degree and several water treatment licenses during his 4 1/2 years in a firefighting camp, licenses he expects will win him a job when he gets parole in 70 days.

"Behind the walls, it's a lot more stringent, there's a lot more politics," said Anderson, of Red Bluff. "These are guys who are just trying to go home and improve their lives."

The corrections department allowed the inmates to speak with The Associated Press on the condition that they not be asked about their crimes.

In an average year, the inmate firefighters perform three million hours of emergency work and five million hours of community service in total.

The camps cost the corrections department about $47 million annually, Stewart said, but save an estimated $80 million annually for the work they provide, compared to a non-inmate earning $10 an hour.

Berlant said the program costs his agency another $77 million annually, but saves millions of dollars compared to what it would cost to hire professional firefighters at $12 to $14.55 an hour.

Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said this spring that he hopes county sheriffs continue to send inmates to the fire camps under the law Brown signed in April. Brown sought the realignment to help cut the state's budget deficit and remove up to 40,000 inmates over three years from the nation's largest state prison system, now 162,000 inmates.

The law would give counties responsibility for adult offenders convicted of non-serious, nonviolent and non-sexual offenses. It also is the administration's primary answer to the U.S. Supreme Court's order last month that California reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates within two years to improve the medical treatment for prisoners.

County sheriffs will have to find places to put all those inmates, Cate said, and under Brown's proposal would have the money to continue sending them to fire camps.

Each of California's 58 sheriffs could respond differently to the influx of inmates, potentially leaving the fire camps short-handed, said Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, president of the state sheriffs' association.

"It gets into those unintended consequences of realignment," Pazin said.

State Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Willows, fears the state could lower its standards for inmate firefighters in an attempt to maintain the program if sheriffs decide not to send many of the lower-level offenders they will inherit back to the camps.

Corrections officials said nine inmates walked away from fire camps last year, which is typical for an unfenced facility.