California’s inmate firefighter crews are dwindling just as the state starts to burn

Ruben Vives | (TNS) Los Angeles Times

Two wet winters followed by repeated record-breaking heat waves in recent months have set California on a path to a fiery summer.

And though firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection will be on the front lines against the flames, behind them in the trenches are hundreds of California inmates, digging, chopping and chainsawing containment lines for crews to gain an advantage. And there are fewer of them than ever.

Peppered throughout the state’s 35 conservation camps — minimum-security facilities — they perform crucial fuel-reduction projects year-round and are occasionally placed in the path of advancing flames. Sometimes, at the cost of their own lives.

But prison reform and the COVID-19 pandemic have shrunk the pool of inmates eligible to attend the camps — operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Cal Fire or the Los Angeles County Fire Department — for fire training and assignments. At the same time that the camp sizes have shrunk — from a peak of 4,250 to fewer than 1,800 today — California has experienced its biggest and deadliest fires, with this summer off to a bad start.

Despite that, Cal Fire and state corrections officials say their strategy of using younger inmates, leaning on seasonal crews longer and partnering with the California Conservation Corps and California Military Department will get them through the year and eventually bring inmate firefighter numbers back to pre-pandemic levels.

“I know there’s been other articles that have painted a picture of doom and gloom and despair,” said Jarrod Clinkenbeard, staff chief of the hand crew program for Cal Fire. “I don’t feel like that’s where we are.”

In 2005, at the peak of the inmate firefighter program, officially known as the Conservation (Fire) Camp Program, there were 192 crews, or 4,250 inmate firefighters, according to the state corrections department. Participants of the program include support staff such as cooks, orderlies and maintenance workers. Four years ago, as prisons shut down and inmate populations declined, the corrections department winnowed the camps down to 1,821 participants. As of July 2, there were about 83 hand crews, or 1,760 participants.

Depending on the year, inmate fire crews account for as much as 30% of the state’s wildfire force and are typically paid $5.80 to $10.24 per day by the corrections department, earning an additional dollar per hour from Cal Fire when responding to a disaster. Inmate fire crews are made up of 12 to 17 firefighters, led by a fire captain. Inmates who have been convicted of violent crimes, such as rape, lewd acts with a child under 14 or any felony punishable by death or life in prison, or who have a history of escaping or arson, are automatically disqualified.

In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom on June 21, Los Angeles County Supervisors Lindsey Horvath and Kathryn Barger voiced concerns about deeper cuts to the program that would’ve shuttered five camps in the county, affecting more than 200 inmate firefighters.

“The implications of such cuts are dire,” the …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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