California Turns to Civilians as Inmate Firefighters Dwindle

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Faced with a shrinking pool of inmates to help fight major wildfires, California is increasingly turning for new recruits to its state Conservation Corps, a program with roots in the Great Depression and a motto that promises “hard work, low pay, miserable conditions … and more!”

Prisoners last year made up about 20 percent of California fire crews on several major blazes, where they used chainsaws and hand tools to chew through tinder-dry brush and trees to stop the flames.

But the number of available inmates is declining because counties now oversee most lower-level felons under a law aimed at easing prison overcrowding. There are also fewer incentives for inmates to risk their lives since a federal court broadened an early release program for firefighters to include other inmates.