Roughly 8,700 firefighters were hard at work Friday battling six major wildfires ravaging Southern California, from Santa Barbara County south to San Diego County.
They’ve traveled from all over to knock down the blazes, which have burned some 245 square miles and displaced more than 200,000 people.
Some residents and news viewers may notice some firefighters working in orange uniforms — a noticeable difference from the yellow suits sported by most fire crew members.
These are inmate firefighters with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s conservation camp program — and they’re working alongside seasoned crews from multiple county, state and local agencies to save lives, land and homes.
1,500 inmate firefighters on fire lines today in #LA, #Ventura and #SanBernardino counties. Crews are from as far as #Mendocino, the #SanFrancisco #BayArea and #SantaCruz. All inmate firefighters are volunteers, working 24 hour shifts in an effort to cut containment lines #CDCR pic.twitter.com/GzxkeG0X39
— CA Corrections (@CACorrections) December 6, 2017
As of Friday morning 1,856 male and female inmates had been dispatched throughout the region to aid in the fire fights.
They sign up for the firefighter program voluntarily, working 24-hour shifts for about $2 per day — plus a $1 bonus when they’re actively fighting on the line.
“It is the most well paying job a prison inmate can have,” said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the CDCR.
Working the lines
The crews work in teams of about 14 under the direction of a CalFire or Los Angles County fire captain, Sessa said.
Their main objective is to cut containment lines, leaving “a clean path to stop the spread of the fire.” The crew leader, named the sawyer, carries a chainsaw to cut troublesome brush. The rest of the team uses hand tools to clear the dry vegetation that’s been fueling the blazes.
“They are extensively trained for the job that they do,” Sessa said.
The crews are “doing 24’s,” Sessa explained, meaning they work a full day, then have a full day’s rest.
As of Friday morning, one serious injury had been reported among the inmate crews. On Thursday, a firefighter working the Rye fire in the Santa Clarita area suffered third-degree burns to his hands, arms and legs after falling in a hole, Sessa said. He’s recovering in a local hospital.
Since the inmate crews often work on the front lines in the midst of raging firestorms, the hazards are abundant and sometimes deadly.
“They’re working in situations where they have to take great care,” Sessa said.
Five CDCR firefighters have died in the last three years. Two of those deaths occurred in the line of duty, Sessa noted.
Despite the recent deaths, the program’s overall safety record is strong, Sessa said, adding that the professional fire officials who oversee the inmate crews look out for them as they would any other firefighters.
By the numbers
Inmate crews from as far north as Mendocino County have traveled to Southern California to fight the December fires.
As of Friday morning, they were dispersed across Southern California to aid in all six major fires:
Creek fire: 393
Thomas fire: 388
Skirball fire: 193
Rye fire: 113
Lilac fire: 103
Liberty fire: 38
Remaining crew members were listed as on the move to provide backup
Sessa said the response from the inmate force to the Southland fires has been nearly identical to that of the devastating infernos that devoured Northern California in October.
While those northern wildfires were much more deadly and destructive, the ferocity and rate of growth has been similar, he said.
Not many people realize that @CACorrections inmates are critical in fire emergencies. Right now, 1,500 inmate firefighters are on the fire lines at the #CreekFire, #SkirballFire and others across SoCal. pic.twitter.com/xrTFMCT2Y1
— Bob Hertzberg (@hertzieLA) December 7, 2017
Only minimum-custody inmates are eligible to volunteer for assignment in the fire camps, according to the department’s website.
“All volunteers are carefully screened and medically cleared on a case by case basis before they are accepted into the program,” corrections officials wrote.
The CDCR operates 43 conservation camps throughout the state. Three of those camps — all in L.A. County — house female inmates.
The program saves California taxpayers approximately $100 million a year, according to CDCR officials.
Those savings are desperately needed in the state, which saw the most destructive fire season in its history this year. The financial toll is also staggering.
As of Wednesday, Dec. 6, CalFire had spent $490.3 million fighting large wildfires in this fiscal year, blowing past its $426.9 million budget.
‘Angels in orange’
While a few inmates have gone on to professional firefighting careers, Sessa said most come away with life skills and a sense of purpose while serving their time.
“They see it a a way of paying the community back for the crime they’ve done,” he said.
In the wake of the Thomas fire, Sessa said he received a call from a Ventura County woman asking how she could meet the inmate crews who saved her home.
“Clearly she and some of her neighbors want to express their appreciation,” Sessa said. “The public realizes what they do and that they are often the first line of defense.”
That show of gratitude is not uncommon among fire victims.
Sessa recalled one recent fire in northern California where inmate crews worked. As they made their way down the hills and through the community they’d protected, homeowners lined the streets to cheer for them. Some called them their “angels in orange,” Sessa said.
“They are treated as firefighters, not as inmates.”
Source: Oc Register