Cal Fire losing inmate volunteers
Wyatt Buchanan - San Francisco Chronicle
Published 09:33 p.m., Tuesday, July 31, 2012Sacramento --
The number of state prison inmates available to perform crucial, labor-intensive tasks in battles against wildfires could soon drop dramatically, due to California's shift of low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.
When wildfires ignite in California, some of the first crews on the scene are not state firefighters but inmates who undergo training to handle such jobs as creating containment lines.
There are more than 4,000 prisoners statewide trained for the work now, but prison officials said they expect that number to shrink by 1,500 by next June as inmates are sent to county jails instead of prison.
"They're able to provide a large workforce," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Oftentimes we have just as many, if not more, inmate firefighters on the fire line than regular fire crews."
Inmates - distinguished by their orange protective clothing (Cal Fire firefighters wear yellow) - were a key force last month in containing the Robbers Fire, which burned 2,650 acres in a steep American River canyon northeast of Auburn (Placer County). The area was mostly inaccessible to large bulldozers and other equipment used to build fire lines.
Dropping large amounts of flame retardant was not an option because it would have ended up in the river, which flows into Folsom Lake, part of California's water system. So instead, much of the fire line work fell to more than 800 prisoners who used chain saws and hand tools to create a containment line in the rugged terrain.
The fire forced evacuations in the area and threatened 170 residences, but only one home and four outbuildings burned.
This week, more than 1,000 inmate firefighters are battling blazes in six counties, including Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties in Northern California.
But their availability is about to take a steep dive because of Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment program to reduce the number of state prisoners and cut costs by housing more inmates in county lockups.
State officials are discussing with sheriffs the creation of a system under which county inmates could shore up the loss, but so far there have been no agreements, said Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The state prisoners - nonviolent offenders who volunteer for the effort - stay in 42 conservation camps throughout California. They can be called up to fight blazes or respond to other emergencies at a moment's notice.
When they aren't fighting fires, the inmates do other tasks, such as clearing brush and vegetation to reduce fuel for a wildfire. They also perform community service such as restoring historic structures and maintaining parks.
For their work, they get paid about $1 per day, or $1 per hour when they are fighting fires.
The sticking point between Sacramento and the counties that are taking on the inmates has been the amount the state wants counties to pay to house them at the conservation camps. Although there has been no resolution, Simas said she expects that the reduced number of inmates available to fight fires to over the next year will change that.
"Once it finally comes up where it's an issue, then we're likely to see more progress," she said.
County sheriffs say that progress will have to come on the state's side, though.
Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal, the president of the California State Sheriffs' Association, said sheriffs and state officials are drafting an agreement that would charge counties $46 per day for the state to house county inmates in the camps.
But Royal said he does not expect many sheriffs to participate in such a program, as sending four or five inmates per year to the camp would be equivalent to the cost of one correctional officer at the jail.
"I can speak for myself and a number of other sheriffs that I am close to that I'm not going to spend $46 a day to put somebody in a facility like a fire camp. I'd rather keep that money so I can keep my department funded and manage my population locally," he said.
He said realignment has put more inmates in county jails than originally estimated and that sheriffs statewide are struggling with those costs.
Still, Cal Fire officials are not yet contemplating how they will operate with a big drop in the number of crews available to battle wildfires.
"For us, we haven't looked at that option - what do we do with 1,500 less (firefighters) - the option is finding a solution," Berlant said.Source: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Cal-Fire-losing-inmate-volunteers-3752179.php
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