In all, that means about 7 percent of the 9,500 firefighters working those fires are inmates.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Conservation (Fire) Camps program is made up of about 3,800 state prison inmates who are minimum-custody inmates deemed a low safety risk.
“All of the inmate firefighters are volunteers,” said CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa. ” We also look for certain attributes that we know are critical for them to be able to work on a fire crew: whether they are willing to join in and work as a team, obey rules, be disciplined and be responsible.”
The inmates get firefighting training, and when working on wildfires mostly do a sort of valuable grunt work — like creating containment lines. The prisoners mostly operate in groups of 12 and are led by an expert firefighter from Cal Fire. They carry about 60 or more pounds of gear, including axes, chainsaws, food and other supplies.
The first inmate crews to the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County and Atlas Fire in Napa and Solano counties worked for 72 straight hours.
“Typically we get them back to a command center to get some rest,” said Sessa. “It’s just in the early stages of these fires they were working in the most extreme conditions we’ve seen in a long time.”
There are another 500 inmates on standby to help battle the two blazes, according to Sessa.
The inmates earn $2 a day while in the camps and $1 an hour when out battling fires. When not on the front lines, inmates work on infrastructure projects for the state and local communities.
The program saves the state $90-100 million a year, according to Sessa.
KQED has profiled inmate firefighting crews in the past, and even produced the following video detailing their work.