California's prison inmate realignment plan impacts firefighting force

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Inmates from surrounding prisons line up after working to contain a wildfire in Simi Valley, CA 30 September 2005.

Cal Fire, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, could lose up to 1,500 inmate firefighters by January as low-level offenders are transferred to county jails under realignment.

“They provide a huge workforce that compliments our career and volunteer firefighters,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

Cal Fire trains about 4,300 prisoners and juveniles a year at about 40 fire camps across the state. The inmates are trained as hand crews that do the heavy lifting, grunt work such as brush clearing to create fire containment lines in wildfires. They also respond to other natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.

Berlant said Cal Fire has enough manpower to get them through the current fire season. In the meantime, negotiations are under way between the state’s corrections agency and California counties. Because many of counties are struggling to find enough space to house the newly transferred inmates, the state is offering to take the inmates back for a fee.

“The county pays the state to house them, supervise them, and the state puts them back into the fire camp program,” Berlant said.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports the suggested fee that has come up in negotiations for counties is $46 per day. It’s a plan that hasn’t gained much traction with county officials and sheriffs, according to the newspaper.

So until one side budges or a new plan is developed, Cal Fire will have to come up with a way to shore up the lost labor force.

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