For a dollar an hour and credit toward early parole, more than 1,700 convicted felons fought on the front lines of the destructive wildfires that raged across Northern California this October. While communities from Sonoma to Mendocino evacuated in the firestorm’s path, these inmates worked shifts of up to 72 straight hours to contain the blaze and protect the property residents left behind, clearing brush and other potential fuel and digging containment lines often just feet away from the flames. Hundreds more are on the fire line now, combatting the inferno spreading across Southern California.
Inmates have been fighting California’s wildfires since the 1940s, when the state first called up prisoners to replace men assisting the war effort. More than 3,700 men and women—and even some juvenile offenders—now voluntarily serve on the force. Collectively, they make up roughly a third of the state’s wildfire-fighting personnel, and work an average of 10 million hours each year responding to fires and other emergencies and handling community-service projects like park maintenance, reforestation, and fire and flood protection.
But over the course of the last decade, their ranks have begun to thin. As drought and heat have fueled some of the worst fires in California’s history, the state has faced a court mandate to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. State officials, caught between an increasing risk of wildfires and a decreasing number of prisoners eligible to fight them, have striven to safeguard the valuable labor inmates provide by scrambling to recruit more of them to join the force. Still, these efforts have been limited by the courts, public opinion, and how far corrections officials and elected leaders have been willing to go: The number of inmate firefighters has fallen 13 percent since 2008.