As they confront an early start to the 2013 wildfire season, California authorities are scrambling to avoid the slow gutting of a program that delivers a crucial source of front-line manpower: felons.
The arrangement, in which nonviolent offenders dig fire lines and clear debris while professional firefighters attack the flames, dates back to World War II, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has grown to depend on it. But the program is in danger of being whittled away.
The reason is a court-mandated shift in custody assignments that keeps non-violent offenders in county jails to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. As current members of the Cal Fire Conservation Camp Program get paroled, and the pool of potential replacements shrinks, the inmate corps is starting to decline. The attrition so far has been slight, but Cal Fire fears that the numbers will start dropping much faster.
"It's a critical component of California's wildfire-fighting system, and that's why we're working so closely with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and other stakeholders to make sure a solution is found," Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
To understand the importance of the inmate brigades, look no further than the 350-acre fire burning near Riverside. It is the third or fourth large-scale wildfire this year, marking an unusually early start to the burning season, which typically ramps up in May or June. Of the 200 firefighters who were working the blaze Friday morning, nearly two-thirds were inmates, Berlant said. Some had just finished work on a 400-acre fire in the eastern part of the state last weekend.
"The work they do is labor-intensive," Berlant explained. "After a fire has been put out, we have to continue building containment lines, so we can leave them out there while the engine companies can go back and respond to other emergencies."
Cal Fire owns 39 minimum-security camps around the state, which are staffed by corrections officers and house a total of 4,300 volunteer inmate firefighters who earn new skills, and time off their sentences. Most are serving time for such offenses as burglary and drug possession, and have exemplary records of behavior behind bars.
Under the new realignment, state officials estimate that the camp program will shrink to about 2,500 inmates later this year.
Jessica Mazlum, the corrections department's deputy chief of external affairs, said her agency has started offering contracts to individual counties, which would pay the state to send its low-risk offenders to the camp program. County officials initially balked at the price—$46 per inmate per-day—but many seem to have come around, she said. With the realignment, she explained, some counties, including Riverside and Los Angeles, are facing overcrowding themselves, and the camp contracts could help them alleviate that problem.
So far, no county has signed such a contract. The corrections department hopes that will change, however, and that a few select counties will keep the camp pipeline full.
"We have no intention of closing any camps," Mazlum said.