Posted: Aug 1, 2012 4:55 PM by Cameron Polom, KSBY News
A prison realignment is taking a toll on the firefighting force Cal Fire says is critical to getting the upper hand on wildfires throughout the state.
Cal Fire says it may lose at least fifteen hundred inmate firefighters as part of the realignment by next June. That's in the peak of fire season.
"These are the folks led by our fire captains that go out into the up on the steepest of slopes, and out in the back woods to fight the hardest fires," says Chief Robert Lewin.
He's talking about the more than 4000 inmate fire fighters trained to fight wildfires in our state.
"These are the shock troops of our fire fighting effort," says Lewin.
Of those four thousand, the prison realignment has already taken four hundred, but by next summer that number could be as high as fifteen hundred.
"We're working on a plan with the department of corrections and rehabilitation to ensure that we have the inmate fire fighters that we need," says Lewin.
As of October of 2011, non-serious and non-sexual offenders are serving their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons making them ineligible for the fire program.
We spoke with a representative from the Department of Corrections who confirmed plans are in the works and Cal Fire has their full support.
"Its not an option," says Lewin. "We need to make sure we have the firefighters we need."
We saw the importance of these crews locally during the Calf Fire near Santa Margarita last month.
"We had over ten strike teams of inmate fire crews," says Lewin. "Each strike team consists of two crews with about 35 people on a strike team."
That's more than six hundred inmates on scene.
Chief Lewin also added that many times the majority of fire fighters attacking a blaze are those inmate crews, and he says losing that man power is not acceptable.
To assist counties in the costs of realignment, the state has provided 850-million dollars to this year, and will give another billion dollars next year.
That money will help with training, retention and increasing personnel at local jails.
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