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Battling California fires, inmates find a chance at better role

About 2,500 trained inmate firefighters are providing vital help in the wildfire crisis.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 2008

service time: California inmate firefighter Floyd Smith helps battle the Basin Complex fire in Big Sur, Calif.

Ben Arnoldy

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Big Sur, Calif.

The fire whirl came spinning up the steep slopes of Big Sur like a dust devil of flame. It headed for the new guy on the fire crew, Billy Gray, who threw on his shroud and bowed his head just in time. The whirl washed over him, then exploded into a grass fire.

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"I turned and yelled, 'Spot fire!' I thank God I didn't get burned," says Mr. Gray, recounting his recent baptism as a prison inmate-turned-firefighter. More than 1 in 10 firefighters here at the Basin Complex – California's biggest blaze – are trained state prisoners.

Despite the danger and 24-hour shifts involving 3,000-foot climbs with 40-pound packs, Gray pushes on. "Plenty of times I've wanted to quit," he says. "It teaches you to persevere."

With 2,500 trained prisoners currently fighting fires, California's inmate firefighting program has proved invaluable as the state struggles to throw enough manpower at this year's lightning-strike siege. The 60-year-old program even seems to be weathering the budget crunch in Sacramento.

For the prisoners, firefighting fosters new growth in their character,

like Sequoia seeds loosed by wildfire.

"We can be going from one fire to another driving down the highway, and people pull up just saying thank you," says firefighter Anthony Candido, who is dressed in an orange corrections jumpsuit. "Even though I have to wear these colors, I still feel important."

Residents are trickling back into Big Sur, an artsy community in central California tucked against dramatic seaside slopes. While firefighters have made progress containing 41 percent of the 90,114 acre inferno, the fire's presence in the mountains above can still be felt along coastal Highway 1. The seasonal Pacific fog mingles with smoke, and ash comes down in gentle flurries. "We heart firefighters" signs line the road and windows.

If anyone is worried about having convicts working the fire lines, it's not Craig Allan, manager of a newly reopened pub here. "I'm glad to have anybody come here and help," he says. "What's worse: Having someone break into the building or having it go up in flames?"

The program has had few escapes or incidents of misbehavior, say officials. "I don't worry too much. When the bell rings, they are firemen and they act like firemen," says Mike Parry, a crew technical specialist with the state agency CAL FIRE. "The inmates, at least in our camp, really never let me down on a fire."

The state just doesn't have the money to hire more crews to do this kind of frontline spadework, says Mr Parry. Inmates are paid $1 an hour for fighting fires and get time shaved off their sentences. Non-inmate labor, he notes, goes for $10 to $12 an hour, not counting overtime.

The voluntary program sets some requirements: no arsonists, sex offenders, or high-level prisoners. Graduates must pass tests of physical stamina and firefighting basics.

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