Monday, April 14, 2008
State inmate camps in San Diego County spend barely a third as much time clearing brush in wildfire prevention as the now disbanded county camps did in the 1980s.
But county supervisors dropped the idea of resurrecting the camps when staff determined it would be difficult to assemble inmate work crews needed to restart them, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Fire experts said the abundance of brush was a major factor in the severity of major wildfires in the county in 2003 and 2007.
Records show that state camps house less than half as many inmates as San Diego County camps used to, about 300 compared to 750. The state camps provide 522,000 labor hours annually compared to the nearly 1.4 million that came from county camps.
Crews from the county camps performed various jobs, including firefighting, fire prevention and disaster relief. The inmates received job training, education and alcohol and drug rehabilitation.
"You just had a dynamite system," said Mike Bilburg, a former probation officer who supervised county camp work crews. "It paid for itself because if those guys were not at camp, they would be in jail at twice the cost."
County financial problems in the late 1980s led to the probation department having its budget cut. That's when the closure of the camps started, the last one shutting down in 2001.
After last October's devastating wildfires in San Diego, county Supervisor Dianne Jacob asked staff to explore the possibility of bringing back the camps. But supervisors took no action.
A county report given privately to supervisors in February says today's inmate population isn't suitable for such purposes.
According to the Union-Tribune, the report says the vast majority of inmates now are awaiting sentencing or are physically or mentally unfit for work duty. Suitable prisoners already are busy with other county tasks.
Division Chief Mike Bratton of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection oversees two of the four state inmate camps in San Diego County. He said he would welcome some help.
"There is so much work to be done in Southern California, especially San Diego County...that even with our 19 crews going out five days a week, we probably couldn't catch up with all the work that needs to be done," Bratton said.