CASTAIC, Calif. (KABC) -- The L.A. County sheriff's and fire departments recently graduated eight inmates from their Fire Camp Training Program.
Eight L.A. County inmates who recently graduated from firefighter training said the program has changed and enriched their lives for the better.
The program, held by the Los Angeles County sheriff's and fire departments, consists of two grueling weeks that test the inmates' physical and mental stamina.
"Definitely one of the hardest things I've had to do was this program," said Emilio Montoya, a new graduate of the program.
During the two-week program, Montoya and the other new grads went through 80 hours of classroom course work, along with physical drills including hiking while carrying upwards of 60 pounds of gear.
Firefighters say roughly 20 to 30% of those in the program wash out because of the tough training.
"I actually thought at one point I was not going to be able to get through this program but it's all a mental thing so as long as you put your mind to something you definitely can achieve it," Montoya said.
When asked why he decided to enter the program, fellow graduate Kurtis Lee said chose the course to change his life.
"It's a beautiful program that helped me change my life around, instill discipline, and it gave me a chance to help my community out," he said.
Since the training program began, there have been more than 1,400 inmates who graduated. Many went on to become firefighters. Only low level non-violent offenders can enter the program, and firefighters say having these inmates on the fire line with them is vital.
"One of our biggest hurdles has been crew shortages, and just to put it in perspective, every wildland fire and grass fire has line cut around it if it's an acre or if it's 100,000 acres, we'll have continuous fire line cut, and 90% of it is all done by these gentleman," said Raymon Mitchison, L.A. County assistant fire chief.
"This program gives them an opportunity to redeem themselves from any crimes that they have committed. They can go through the program and learn things - not only skills to become a firefighter but also intangible skills like teamwork, dedication, work ethic that they can apply to anything in life," said LASD Lt. David Pittack.
Once they graduate, their training continues at one of the four L.A. County Fire Camps.