More than 1,500 inmate firefighters and 138 correctional staff have joined forces with other state and local agencies in battling blazes throughout the state, according to the California Department of Corrections (CDC). They are among the more than 4,000 inmates who participate in CDC’s Conservation Camps Program.
“This year may go down as one of the most severe fire seasons in the past few decades,” CDC Director C.A. “Cal” Terhune said. “For the past few weeks, we’ve committed most of our fire-fighting force to saving lives and property.”
As of Aug. 28, 1,552 inmate fire fighters were deployed to Plumas, Mariposa, Placer, Nevada, Tuolumne and Tulare Counties. Earlier this month, 1,926 inmate fire fighters were busy fighting fires in Riverside, Kern, San Bernardino, Inyo, Lassen, Fresno, Monterey, Shasta, San Benito, Mono and Calaveras Counties. The inmates, supervised by 101 correctional officers and 37 supervisors, are assisting in various stages of fire fighting activities, from cutting fire lines to mopping up after a fire has been controlled. In addition, other inmates in the program also work at base camps to do laundry and prepare meals.
Each fire fighting crew is made up of 17 inmates supervised by a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Captain and a CDC correctional officer working 12-hour shifts. Right now, 46 crews made up of 715 inmates are helping to fight the blaze in the Plumas National Forest.
“These long campaigns are very tiring,” Terhune said. “Both staff and inmates never really catch up on their sleep. The fire fighters work under extreme conditions and steep terrain, carrying 30 pounds of tools, water, a shelter and their rations, going to places where bulldozers can’t go.”
Moreover, both Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown and California Correctional Center in Susanville, institutions that administer 36 conservation camps, have deployed medical emergency response teams to the major fires. Each three-person team is made up of a registered nurse and two medical technical assistants and provides first aid to the inmate and civilian fire fighters.
Terhune said that the Conservation Camp Program, established in 1946, is successful for both the inmates who participate and the public who benefits.
“We find that the inmates take fierce pride in doing the hardest work,” Terhune said. “Racial tensions and prison pressures don’t exist on the fire line. Inmates learn teamwork and reliance on their fellow firefighters.”
There are 38 Conservation Camps in California. CDC jointly manages 33 camps with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and five camps with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Inmates assigned to the Conservation Camps Program are carefully screened and medically cleared. To qualify, they must be minimum-security risks, physically fit, and have no history of violent crime including kidnapping, sex offenses, arson or escape. The men and women who participate in the program provide the state with an able-bodied, trained workforce for fire suppression and other emergencies. In 1999, 2,790 inmate fire fighters worked more than 1.5 million hours on 244 fires. The estimated cost avoidance to the taxpayers of California was approximately $150 million.
“A trained inmate fire fighter makes $1 an hour, which means they are a valuable asset and a tremendous bargain for the taxpayer. But you can’t put a dollar amount on the positive values and life experiences the inmate firefighters take with them for life on the outside,” Terhune said.