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Prison Reforms Pressuring California’s Inmate Firefighter Force

Inmate firefighters walk along Highway 120 after a burnout operation as firef...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Inmate firefighters walk along Highway 120 after a burnout operation as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Aug. 25, 2013.

Prison Reforms Pressuring California's Inmate Firefighter Force


Annika Neklason, assistant editor, The Atlantic

The firefighters clearing brush during a raging wildfire or digging containment lines are not always professional firefighters. In California, about 3,700 of them are prison inmates.

But that number has fallen 13 percent since 2008. Prison realignment, which has decreased the overall number of state inmates, is also slowly shrinking the number of inmates qualified to volunteer for firefighting duty. The state estimates these inmates save California $100 million a year it would otherwise have to spend on firefighters.

The Atlantic assistant editor Annika Neklason reports that the state is "running out" of inmate firefighters, who currently make up about a third of the state's wildfire-fighting personnel.

"After a series of intensely destructive seasons linked to climate change, scientists are projecting that California will face still more disastrous blazes in the future; at the same time, voters and officials are contemplating further reducing imprisonment around the state," Neklason wrote. "The fate of the inmate-firefighting program lies in the balance between these trends: buoyed by the increasing need for cheap labor, threatened by the pending decline in incarceration."

Cal Fire says 193 inmates were assigned to fight the Lilac Fire in San Diego's North County last week.

Neklason joins KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with more on how California may cope with a falling inmate firefighter population.

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