Monday, September 29, 1997

STATE PRISON INMATES JOIN BATTLE AGAINST FIRES

More than 1,000 orange-suited California prison inmates are working side-by-side with other fire crews battling the numerous fires raging throughout the state.

Thirty-four crews, with more than 500 inmates, are battling the Williams fire in Yuba County, while another twenty-four crews are involved in the Tehama County Ponderosa fire.

Inmates from 26 of the state’s 38 conservation camps are cutting fire lines, clearing debris from the fire’s path, setting back-fires and extinguishing smaller fires they encounter.

The 1,131 inmates and 97 staff from the California Department of Corrections (CDC) are assigned to fires in nine counties including Mariposa, Calaveras, Tulare, Tehama, San Luis Obispo, Humboldt, Shasta, Solano and Yuba counties. They will remain on the fires until they are fully contained and will then be deployed to another fire if needed.

The inmates are normally assigned to the conservation camps, or minimum security prisons, located in rural areas throughout the state. The camps house almost 4,000 inmates and are operated jointly by CDC and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF).

CDC oversees camp security and operations; its staff provides the necessary security while inmates are on the fire line. CDF provides firefighting training and supervises inmate firefighting efforts.

Hundreds of inmate crews joined in the state’s flood fighting during this year’s heavy flooding. Inmate crews built the widely publicized berm that protected the Northern California town of Meridien from inundation by the raging flood waters.

Inmates serve their sentences at conservation camps after passing a highly selective screening process and a rigorous firefighting training regime. A typical firefighting inmate is convicted of a nonviolent offense, has an average sentence of two years and will spend about eight months in camp before parole.

When not fighting fires, inmates are dispatched to other emergencies and non-emergency work including earthquakes, wildlife habitat preservation and graffiti removal. In the average fire season, inmates work up to two million hours. They are paid $1.00 an hour on the fire lines.

It is estimated that state and local governments save more than $70 million that otherwise would be paid to accomplish the work inmates perform.