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Calif. prison realignment may mean 1,500 less inmate firefighters

January 3, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Areas at risk of wildfires and mudslides could have fewer crews to help out in 2013. The pool of inmate firefighters who pitch in during disasters is shrinking.

For thousands of state prisoners, fighting wildfires offers a chance to earn credit toward their sentence and the opportunity to do more than sit behind bars.

But next year, the program run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and Cal Fire will have to rely on fewer inmates due to prison realignment efforts.

"We anticipate the loss of approximately 1,500 inmates, which is about 90 to 100 crews, by the 2013 fire season, which could be significant," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson.

For years, the state has recruited non-violent inmates for its firefighting program. But with many low-level offenders being sent to county jails or released early, the pool of candidates is dwindling.

Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Riverside) says that will put fire prone communities at risk.

"You have the potential that a large fire can grow even larger, or a small fire can grow even larger, because you're waiting for crews to come from a further distance," Jeffries said.

Inmate crews are often used to dig fire lines, remove brush and, in some cases, move mountains.

The Autumn Chase neighborhood in East Highland is a prime example of what an inmate crew can do. Last year as a hillside was threatening homes, it was inmate crews that were busy sandbagging the neighborhood.

"They were here 24/7," said East Highland resident Cyndi Saldana. "They put 6,000 sandbags around my house alone, not to mention my neighbors up and down the street."

Saldana also credits the inmate crews with saving her home from a mudslide in 2010.

She worries what a reduction in their numbers will mean in the future if another mudslide happens.

"They're needed, whether it's a forest fire or sandbags for mud slides," Saldana said.

The CDCR says it is working with county officials to train inmates locally and contract them out to the state when needed.