More than 650 inmates from California’s state prison system are currently battling the PocketTubbs and Atlas fires in the North Bay.

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.

Inmate firefighters from Oak Glen Conservation Camp are transported to a work assignment under the authority of Cal Fire, which calls and treats them as firefighters rather than inmates while they are away from the minimum-security prison on Sept. 28, 2017, near Yucaipa, California. (DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

“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.

An inmate firefighter crew returns to base camp in Redding, Calif. after a 24-hour shift fighting the Bully fire.
An inmate firefighter crew returns to base camp in Redding, California, after a 24-hour shift fighting the Bully Fire. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

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.

Prisoners at Oak Glen Conservation Camp leave the minimum-security prison for work deployment under the authority of Cal Fire, during which time they are called and treated as firefighters rather than inmates until they return to camp, on Sept. 28, 2017, near Yucaipa, California. (AVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

KQED has profiled inmate firefighting crews in the past, and even produced the following video detailing their work.


Hundreds of the Firefighters Battling Sonoma Fires — Inmates 13 October,2017Alex Helmick


Alex Helmick

Alex Helmick is the supervising editor of KQED’s newscast unit. He leads a team of 10 and edits content for KQED’s 20 daily newscasts as well as occasionally editing The California Report.

Before joining KQED, Alex worked in Geneva, Switzerland, where he reported from the United Nations European Headquarters and later hosted a 2-hour daily current events program. In 2009, he covered the war in Afghanistan and its impact on the humanitarian crisis in the country. He has also covered business in Chicago and produced the evening news for WBEZ.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor