INMATE FIREFIGHTERS SENT TO COUNTY LOCK-UPS
The state is about to lose a very valuable and crucial weapon in the fight against wildfires, prison officials warn: inmate firefighters.
Within the next year, the number of state prison inmates that are available to battle wildfires will be reduced dramatically, various news media report, including the San Francisco Chronicle.
This drop-off is the result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan, which shifts some of the responsibility for housing some prisoners from state prisons to county jails. The shift impacts low-level offenders, who make up the bulk of inmate firefighter crews.
Inmate firefighter crews are, oftentimes, some of the first responders when a wildfire erupts, state fire officials say. These inmates are volunteers who are specially trained to perform essential firefighting duties, such as create fire containment lines.
Presently, there are approximately 4,000 inmates who have received this training, but officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) said they expect to lose approximately 1,500 of those inmates by June 2013, since more inmates will remain in county jails instead of being sent to state prison.
Daniel Berlant, spokeman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, recognizes the value of these men and women. “They’re able to provide a large workforce,” he said in a Chronicle interview. “Oftentimes, we have just as many, if not more, inmate firefighters on the fire line than regular fire crews.”
Those inmate firefighters have been an important element in battling several recent large-scale fires throughout the state. Inmate firefighters were instrumental in containing the Robbers Fire, which burned 2,650 acres of steep terrain in the American River Canyon, Berlant said. The fire was inaccessible to bulldozers and using fire-retardant chemicals was not an option since they could runoff into Folsom Lake, part of the California water system.
Berlant added: Most of the work creating fire-lines was done by over 800 inmates using chain saws and hand tools. The fire forced many residences to evacuate and endangered 170 homes. But, because of the inmate firefighters’ efforts, only one house and four outbuildings were destroyed. More than 2,500 inmates fought fires in several other California counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Lake, Mendocino and Napa.
State officials are currently negotiating with county sheriffs to have counties pay the state to house its inmates in CDCR fire camps and still enable them to perform this vital function. However, according to Dana Simas, spokeswoman for CDCR, the discussions have not resulted in an agreement as of the end of August. There are 42 conservation fire camps throughout the state, allowing inmates to respond quickly to an emergency.
Inmates also handle other duties when not fighting fires, such as clearing brush and vegetation, and performing community service projects, such as restoring historic structures and upkeep of local parks.
The point of contention between the counties and CDCR is the amount CDCR wants sheriffs to pay in order to house the inmates. Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said state officials and county sheriffs are negotiating a deal where the counties pay the state $46 per person to house inmates in the camps. However, Royal, who is the president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, doubts many of his counterparts will opt into the program.