The number of California prison inmates available to help fight wildfires could soon drop dramatically, due to California’s shift of low-level offenders to county jails, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. When wildfires ignite in California, some of the first crews on the scene are inmates trained 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 summer as inmates are sent to county jails instead of prison.
A state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman said there are often as many or more inmate firefighters working on a fire line as regular fire crews. The inmates are distinguished by their orange protective clothing. (Cal Fire firefighters wear yellow.) They were a key last month in containing the Robbers Fire, which burned 2,650 acres in a steep American River canyon in Placer County. The area was mostly inaccessible to large bulldozers and other equipment used to build fire lines, so 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. This week, more than 1,000 inmate firefighters are battling blazes in six counties.