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California inmates offer helping hands during fire season

File photo: A Cal Fire firefighter leads a group of inmate firefighters during a burn operation to head off the Rocky Fire on August 2, 2015 near Clearlake, California.
File photo: A Cal Fire firefighter leads a group of inmate firefighters during a burn operation to head off the Rocky Fire on August 2, 2015 near Clearlake, California.
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All day Friday, KPCC is taking a look at the risks of fire in California. 

Following five years of drought and record rains this winter, the risk from fire now is unusually high.

Since 1946, inmates have played an important role in fighting the state's fires. These days, they provide approximately 3 million hours of firefighting work each year.

Bill Sessa, the spokesman for the Department of Corrections’ inmate firefighter program, talked to KPCC’s Alex Cohen on Friday’s Morning Edition about some of the challenges the inmates face this summer. Below are some highlights from that conversation.

On how inmates are selected:

We are very selective about the inmates that go into fire camp program precisely because they are out in the community, but also because the camp environment is much different than a prison – it requires inmates that are disciplined, that are willing to obey the rules, that do not have any violent behavior and also are willing to do the job. It’s important to remember that all of the inmates who work on inmate fire crews volunteer for the assignment. No one is assigned to a fire camp or assigned against their will.

On the kind of firefighting work they do:

They don’t do the glamorous stuff. They don’t fly the airplanes and they don’t run the water truck. They are a ground crew. They typically work in crews of a dozen or 14 at a time, the lead guy has a chainsaw, everybody else has hand tools, and their main job is to cut a containment line that stops the spread of a fire.

On security issues:

They’re supervised by correctional officers while they’re in the camp. They are supervised and directed by fire experts from Cal Fire when they’re out in the field. I know it does sound a little bit alarming that we have inmates in the community – in all the years that we have had this program, we have never, ever had a problem in the community with anybody or any crew. 

Click on the audio above to hear the interview in its entirely, where Sessa talks about how inmates are kept safe during fires, the program’s impact on the inmates themselves, and more.