Riverside becomes first county in state to allow inmates to join fire crews

A fire burns in Riverside County Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013.
A fire burns in Riverside County Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013.
NBC Los Angeles

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Riverside will become the first county in California to allow inmates to join state fire fighting crews, after a unanimous vote by county supervisors today.

Inmates fighting fires is nothing new in California. They’ve long been integral on the fire lines, according to Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries.

“A lot of people don’t recognize it, but when you see men and in some cases women in orange jumpsuits coming in on cargo vans, those are inmates from the state’s correctional system,” said Jeffries. “California has been utilizing inmate fire crews literally for decades.”

The crews have always been made up of state prisoners, but now there aren’t enough of the low level offenders who qualify for the program left in state prisons.

They’ve been sent to county jails under what’s known as "realignment."

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant says this is the first year the inmate program is seeing realignment’s impact.

“We’re down about 600 inmates out of the 4,300 we’re normally staffed with,” said Berlant. “While we do have a good number in the pipeline that are going through training right now, we’re looking at the future, because at the end of the day we need 196 crews to be able to respond to the thousands of wildfires we respond to.”

Inmate crews spend a lot of time trying to prevent wildfires, clearing fallen trees and maintaining roads. If a fire breaks out, they dig ditches, helping to build containment lines.

Berlant says the inmates aren’t just dealing with fires.

“They respond to floods and earthquakes, and even search and rescue missions in some cases,” said Berlant.

For Riverside, there’s the added benefit of reducing the county’s overcrowded jails, where nearly 7,000 inmates were released early last year.

“We are looking for bed facilities to put eligible inmates who want to volunteer to be on these fire crews,” said Jeffries. “These are people who volunteer to serve their time in a low-level facility in a much-reduced cost compared to being in a full-scale jail”

It costs the county about $50 dollars a day per inmate in the program , but little of that goes to the inmate. They’re paid about a dollar a day for fire prevention work.

If they’re fighting a fire, they get about a dollar an hour.