Homeowners praise inmate firefighters for battling blazes

Crews prepare to clear 300 feet of brush in under an hour.

Crews prepare to clear 300 feet of brush in under an hour. It was part of a training exercise earlier this year.

Two Lower Lake residents wrote a letter praising the efforts of inmate firefighters who helped save their neighborhood during a raging fire in Napa and Lake counties.

The homeowners wrote, “I wanted to make sure to acknowledge and thank all the Inmates that worked with Cal Fire in and around our property, tirelessly and who were also courteous and polite when acknowledged. Despite their plight and the reasons they were in the situation they were, I can only feel pride to acknowledge their efforts along with all the others involved.”

The combined Jerusalem/Rocky fire burned for weeks, consuming 75,000 acres in Napa and Lake counties.  At its peak, the Konocti Camp near Clear Lake, which normally houses about 100 firefighters, housed 600 as crews came from other areas to fight that fire, essentially turning the camp into a mini-city. All firefighters worked 24 hours at a time for weeks before that fire was fully contained. Now, many of the crews have moved on to fight other fires.

As the California drought continues to create dry conditions across the state, inmate firefighters are working to help combat the blazes. As of Aug. 25, there were 13 active wildfires raging across the state, burning more than 270,000 acres.

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In August 2012, inmates battled the Mill Fire. (CDCR file photo.)

What is the inmate firefighting program?

The inmate firefighting program, started in 1946, can accommodate 4,000 inmate participants.

On a typical day in recent weeks, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has averaged about 2,100 inmates on the fire line each day while the remainder provide backup fire protection in the rest of the state.

All inmate firefighters are volunteers. Only inmates in general population, medium security level institutions are eligible. In other words, no one from a Level 3 or 4 facility can volunteer. Also, inmates convicted of crimes categorized as “serious” or “violent” felonies are not eligible. Arsonists are not eligible; nor are those serving a life sentence, even though many are housed in Level 2 facilities. Kidnap, rape and violent assault convictions rule inmates out, as do any sex crimes.

CDCR acknowledges up front fire duty is dangerous but inmates have some inducements to volunteer. The camp setting is more informal and open than the confines of an institution behind an electrified fence.

Most California inmates are entitled to “day for day” credits, receiving one day off their sentence for every day of good behavior. Firefighting inmates earn two days of their sentence for each day they are on the fire line, so they can accelerate their release date.

They are paid better than most inmate jobs in prison. They average about $2 per day when they are in camp plus $1 per hour when they are on the fire line.   That gives them a nest egg to help them when they parole or to pay victim restitution if they are required to do so.

(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)

Learn more about the training required of inmate firefighters,

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