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Pro or con? Here's who is fighting California's wildfires

Leeanna McLean
Digital Reporter

Saturday, August 15, 2015, 5:56 PM - An unexpected group is battling wildfires in California.

From behind bars to the front lines, about 40 percent of the nearly 10,000 firefighters deployed to wildfires across California are low-level felons from prison.

Working in "Conservation Camps" set up by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), about 4,000 inmates are currently working some of the most agonizing jobs in the firefighting operations. From clearing brush to stop the spread of a blaze, to assisting state and local fire crews, the teams work in shifts of 24 hours, followed by a 24-hour break.

The program gives taxpayers an estimated annual savings of $80 million, according to reports.

Stationed across the state in 44 fire camps, program participants often stay in the middle of the forest and make anywhere between $1.45 and $3.90 per day, according to the CDCR. A two-day sentence reduction is also granted to the prisoners each day of firefighting.

"This is a reward for many of these individuals," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant told Mother Jones. "They're outside the walls, doing good work, learning a skill that they may not get behind bars. They don't want to screw up."

Officials say although there are no guards on the front lines, escape attempts are uncommon.

Instead of sleeping behind bars, the inmates sleep in barracks-style lodges that are guarded by correctional officials, according to Reuters. The news agency reports they even receive better food.

Although this program comes with its perks, CDCR spokesman Bill Cessa told ThinkProgress, the fact is the job is quite dangerous.

"When you're actually in a fire, this is not a small grass fire. These are fires with flames 100 feet tall."

Prisoners are given a four-week training course by Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for coordinating firefighting efforts. Prisoners learn how to stand the heat of a blaze, while carrying up to 100 pounds of gear. Teams are broken into 12 and each have a fire captain who leads.

Once their time is served, some inmates use their training to find jobs as firefighters, CDCR reports.

Inmate Cory Sills recalls assembling during the morning of one of his first shifts.

"The lieutenant comes out and he goes, 'look, we'll treat you like men first, firefighters second, and prisoners if we have to,'" Sills told KQED. "That right there, that stuck in my head for two years now because now I have a chance to be treated like a man."

Source: CDCR | Reuters | KQED | Mother Jones | Think Progress

Related video: Top 5 Canadian wildfires this century

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