Oct 27, 2007 9:02 pm US/Central
Thousands Of Prisoners Are On The Fire Lines Helping Battle The Blaze
(CBS) LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. They've stolen cars, used drugs and forged checks. When California is burning, they fight fires.
About a quarter of the 14,000 firefighters defending homes and businesses in Southern California from wildfires have been prisoners, officials said. Of the 4,400 inmates trained to battle fires in the state, 3,091 were on the front lines Friday from Lake Arrowhead south to San Diego.
"It's very close to the most we've ever used," said Seth Unger, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. About 3,000 inmates were used in 2003 during the Cedar Fire north of San Diego.
Not every inmate qualifies to be a firefighter. Those who do - male or female - must be physically fit, have no history of violent crime and have four to 36 months remaining on their sentences, Unger said.
Once chosen, inmates undergo a four-week program that includes training in fire safety and suppression. The program has been in existence since the 1940s and makes inmates available for other natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding.
Inmates earn $1 an hour, saving state taxpayers an estimated $80 million per year, department of corrections officials said. Inmates are often sent to cut fire breaks in locations that can't be reached by heavy machinery. They also help protect homes and businesses.
"The program provides great benefits to both the state and the inmate," Unger said. "The inmate not only gets to be outside, but gives back to the community, in some cases the same communities they may have victimized before."
In addition to the money and the chance to break the monotony of prison life, inmates earn two days of credit toward completing their sentences for every day they spend on fire lines.
Jose Robert Rosales, 23, an inmate at the Fenner Canyon prison camp in Valyermo, was one of more than 220 inmates dressed in orange jumpsuits marked "CDC PRISONER" helping fight a wildfire near Lake Arrowhead, said Lt. William Mock, who runs the Fenner Canyon camp.
Rosales said being on the fire lines has helped him plan for life after prison, when he hopes to return to work at his father-in-law's body shop.
"The program has helped me a lot physically and mentally," said Rosales, who was convicted of causing great bodily injury and making terrorist threats four years ago. "There's less stress, and you get to go out more and make more money, which will help me when I get out."
Some firefighters said without the help of inmates, the blazes may have caused more destruction.
"I think it would be very hard without them. It would really impact us," said Breck Wright, a state firefighter who said he has worked side by side with inmates on dozens of occasions. "They are very effective, hardworking and are well-trained. They know what they are doing."
At least one inmate firefighter has died in the line of duty. In July 1999, a male inmate died in Ventura County when he fell from a hillside.
Air quality remained poor in the central San Bernardino Mountains and parts of the San Bernardino Valley, as well as swaths of Orange and Riverside Counties. In San Diego County, where only two of five major fires was more than 50 percent contained, the air was especially dismal Friday.
Satellite pictures showed thick smoke continuing to hang over the entire region, affecting schools, events and the health of residents all over Southern California.
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