Inmate volunteers join firefighters to battle California wildfires

Force of 14,000 firefighters, including 2,000 inmates, now battling 18 major wildfires raging across California, including the largest EVER in state history as new images show the smoke from space

  • Among the 14,000 firefighters battling wildfires in California are roughly 2,000 prison inmate volunteers
  • Minimum-custody inmates are paid $2 a day plus $1 an hour, saving the state up to $100 million a year
  • Critical Red Flag conditions remain in effect across southern California, where new Holy Fire began Monday
  • To the north, Mendocino Complex Fire has scorched 454 square miles to become biggest in state history
  • Deadly Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity counties has taken seven lives and destroyed at least 1,080 homes 
  • Dramatic photos take from the International Space Station show the scale of the fires from space 

Some 2,000 inmate volunteers paid $1 an hour are part of the contingent of 14,000 firefighters battling 18 major wildfires raging across California, including the massive Medocino Complex Fire that is now the largest in state history.

The inmate volunteer force now accounts for 14 per cent of the firefighters deployed across California, and is composed of minimum-security inmates who are considered low security risks.

‘The inmate fire fighters work in teams of 12 – their specific job is to cut containment lines and fire breaks to either stop a fire or change its direction, while firefighters from CalFire and other agencies directly attack the flames,’ California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa said in a statement to DailyMail.com.

‘That means our inmates are often hiking into back country with 60 pounds of gear on their backs. In fire situations like those we are now seeing in California, our firefighters – and all the others as well – are working 24 hours straight before being rotated by other crews who rested in the previous 24 hours,’ Sessa said. 

Inmate firefighters look on as a firefighting aircraft prepares to drop fire retardant ahead of the River Fire component of the Mendocino Complex as it burns through a canyon on August 1 in Lakeport, California


Inmate firefighters are seen working to clear brush and create containment lines last month left and right above

Evacuees from Lucerne, from left, Ken Bennett with Ember Reynolds, 8, and Lisa Reynolds watch the sunset as smoke from the Ranch Fire rises into the sky at Austin Park Beach in California’s Clearlake with Mount Konocti in the background

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    Sessa said that about 2,000 members of the 3,500 inmate firefighting force were working on fire lines on Tuesday, from the Oregon border to southern California. 

    Anyone convicted of sexual offenses, arson or attempt to escape by force is not eligible to join, and the convicts are all medically screened and trained by Cal Fire, according to the CDCR.

    California’s inmate firefighting program, an offshoot of prisoner road work crews, began during WWII, when the manpower shortage left Cal Fire’s predecessor agency desperately understaffed.

    Mostly doing the grunt work of creating containment lines with pick axes, shovels and chainsaws, the inmates are paid $2 a day plus $1 an hour, Sessa told KQED last fall.

    Sessa said that the program saves the state up to $100 million a year.The program has provoked controversy over the years. Last fall, then-candidate for California lieutenant governor Gayle McLaughlin called the practice ‘slave labor’. But defenders say the program is voluntary, and helps inmates build valuable skills. 

    The inmates and the professionals with Cal Fire, who are paid a minimum of $10.50 an hour, take aim at the biggest wildfires in two ways, and in much of the same way the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has for decades. First, they’ll go at it directly with water and retardant where they can.

    And when they can’t take that direct approach, firefighters retreat to a ridge, wide road or stream where they use bulldozers to cut a ‘fire line.’ There they’ll wait for the blaze to come to them while lighting ‘backfires’ to clear vegetation between the fire line and the approaching blaze.

    Smoke from the Mendocino Complex rises above the hills north of Clear Lake in Ukiah, California on Monday

    Inmate firefighters (in orange) are seen training with a Cal Fire professional in this photo shared by CDCR last month

    The inmates (in orange) practice their wildfire fighting skills with Cal Fire trainers in a prison camp last month

    A Cal Fire instructor (in yellow) teaches the inmate firefighters wildfire survival skills in a training camp last month

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      Experts say whichever approach Cal Fire takes, California firefighters are often more aggressive in trying to extinguish wildfires than those in other less-populated states. That’s because California wildfires are increasingly threatening sprawling urban areas.

      ‘Cal Fire is really an urban firefighter service in the woods,’ said Arizona State University life sciences professor Stephen Pyne, a wildfire management expert.

      Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said firefighters use both approaches to battle the large blazes, including the growing twin fires of the Mendocino Complex about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

      McLean said firefighters are using the direct approach to prevent the fires from reaching urban areas along Clear Lake while retreating in national forests ‘and letting the fire come to us.’

      By Tuesday morning, the two fires grew to a combined 454 square miles, and the fire is now the state’s largest wildfire in modern history. The previous record was set in December by the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

      Smoke rising from the California’s wildfires was seen from the International Space Station on Monday and NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold took a photo of the wildfire smoke rising from California from the ISS.

      Smoke rising from California’s wildfires is seen from the International Space Station on Monday

      NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold took the photo of the wildfire smoke rising from California from the ISS on Monday 

      The Mendocino Complex Fire burns in the Mendocino National Forest near Willows, California on Monday

      A Ventura County hand crew hikes along a fire road on the eastern edge of the Ranch fire, the largest of the two fires that make up the Mendocino Complex, in Ukiah, California on Monday

      Arcadia and Santa Rosa firefighters attempt to put out fire on a hay bale stack behind Brassfied Estate Winery in High Valley near Clearlake Oaks on Monday

      McLean and fire experts say it’s impossible to surround a fire that large, especially with 17 other major fires requiring attention in the state.

      ‘We are building lines. Picking and choosing where we think we can take a stand,’ McLean said. ‘Attacking it where we can and waiting and letting it come to us when appropriate.’

      McLean said firefighters are using direct means to prevent the Mendocino Complex from reaching evacuated urban areas on the east side of Clear Lake.

      At the same time, firefighters have pulled back in the uninhabited national forests to the north, where they have cut fire lines and are employing indirect methods.

      Experts say the best way to fight these destructive wildfires is to prevent them in the first place when building homes and other buildings.

      ‘It’s the embers, not the fire itself, that destroy most homes,’ said Steve Conboy, a construction expert whose company develops fire-resistant chemicals to apply to wood.

      Jim Bolander hoses down the roof of his home for the sixth time in eight years in Spring Valley, California on Monday

      Crystal Easter comforts her dogs on Monday in Spring Valley, California as they flee the Mendocino Complex

      In the meantime, Governor Jerry Brown and other state officials warned that the state is expected to endure record-breaking wildfires going forward. 

      Drought, warmer weather and other factors have combined to start wildfire season sooner and make the blazes more destructive.

      ‘We’re in uncharted territory,’ the governor said last week. ‘Since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven’t had this kind of heat condition, and it’s going to continue getting worse. That’s the way it is.’

      Firefighting costs have more than tripled from $242 million in the 2013 fiscal year to $773 million in the 2018 fiscal year that ended June 30, according to Cal Fire.

      ‘In past decades, we may have seen a fire that we’re seeing now in August or September,’ Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said during a press conference last week. 

      ‘We are routinely now seeing fires reach 100,000 acres several times in one month and it’s only July, so we have a long way to go in this fire season, and as we saw last year fire season can go right up through December.’

      Over the weekend, crews made progress against one of the two blazes in the Mendocino Complex, with help from water-dropping aircraft, Cal Fire operations chief Charlie Blankenheim said in a video on Facebook.

      But the other fire in the twin blaze is growing after spreading into the Mendocino National Forest.

      Flames consume a home as the River Fire tears though Lakeport, California on July 31. The twin fires of the Mendocino Complex have destroyed at least 75 homes so far

      Smoke is seen rising from the Holy Fire, which broke out on Monday south of Los Angeles in Orange County

      Meanwhile, a new fire dubbed Holy Fire erupted south of Los Angeles in Orange County on Monday and quickly spread through the chaparral-covered ridges of the Cleveland National Forest. 

      Campgrounds and homes in Holy Jim Canyon were ordered evacuated. The fire sent up an enormous pillar of smoke and ash.

      Farther north, crews gained ground against the deadly Carr Fire that has destroyed more than 1,000 homes in and around Redding. It was nearly halfway contained, Cal Fire said.

      The wildfire about 225 miles north of San Francisco started more than two weeks ago by sparks from the steel wheel of a towed-trailer’s flat tire. It killed two firefighters, a utility worker and four residents and displaced more than 38,000 people.

      Officials began allowing some residents to return to their neighborhoods. But tens of thousands of others were still evacuated.

      The fires in Northern California have created such a haze of smoke in the Central Valley that Sacramento County health officials advised residents to avoid outdoor activities for the entire week.

      Another blaze that ignited last week in the Sierra Nevada has damaged a historic Northern California resort in the Stanislaus National Forest. 

      The nearly century-old Dardanelle Resort has reportedly sustained massive structural damage, though the details were unclear.

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