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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

San Diego County To Send 50 More Inmates To Fire Camps

Inmate firefighters train in Los Angeles County.

Credit: Cal Fire

Above: Inmate firefighters train in Los Angeles County.

Dozens of San Diego inmates will soon be transferred from county jails to state-run fire camps as part of an effort to ease overcrowding and to provide support to firefighters on the front lines.

Dozens of San Diego inmates will soon be transferred from county jails to state-run fire camps as part of an effort to ease overcrowding and to provide support to firefighters on the front lines.

San Diego County Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a plan backed by the Sheriff and the District Attorney to move at least 50 male and female inmates to the county’s four fire camps, which are run by the California Department of Corrections and Cal Fire.

The camps, two designated for females and two for males, are located in the backcountry communities of Warner Springs, McCain Valley, Rainbow and Julian.

State prison inmates have historically been housed at the camps but the 2011 prison realignment plan to end chronic prison overcrowding threatened to deplete the program because low-level prisoners were being transferred to county jails instead of the camps.

Cal Fire spokesman Nick Schuler said there are currently 339 inmate firefighters in San Diego County with a capacity for 446.

"The numbers always fluctuate for various reasons," said Schuler. "Those who are paroling and getting out of the camps or those that have to go back into the system for a variety of reasons. But we hope with the recent decision that we’ll see those numbers increase."

Shuler said the inmates, distinguished by their orange jumpsuits, provide essential support in fighting major blazes.

"These crews provide a critical firefighting force that allows us to access extremely steep, rugged terrain and provide what we call cutting line — essentially putting a line around those fires in very remote areas," said Shuler.

The county plans to budget $950,000 this fiscal year in state realignment money to pay for the program but funding for next year remains uncertain. The current state policy requires counties to pay $46 per day per inmate to house realigned offenders at fire camps. San Diego County supervisors say they'll urge lawmakers to eliminate that fee.

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