As the massive fires burn on in California near Yosemite National Park, thousands of fire fighters are risking their lives every day in an attempt to cripple the blaze. What many don’t realize is that a number of these brave people are also convicts from California prisons.
According to NBC, 673 members of the state’s conservation camp program, which takes prisoners out of minimum-security facilities and onto the front lines. Of the number of people working in the program currently, 621 are men and 52 are women. Even more have been sent out to fight in the various 20 other fires at spots around the state.
Only nonviolent offenders are eligible to join the program. Additional criteria include inmates service between 12 months and 7.5 years, and those who do not have a history of arson, kidnapping, or sexual offenses.
The volunteers earn $1 an hour working on containment lines to preempt the fire spreading further. Additionally, the convicts may also get up to two days cut from their sentence for every day they spend fighting fires.
“They are in the thick of it,” said Capt. Jorge Santana of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “They work 24-hour shifts. They sleep in tents at base camp. They work side-by-side with other firefighters. They risk their lives.”
The fire is now the size of the city of Chicago.Click here to read more
The convicts stay in a camp and live inside barracks (in the form of a large tent) with 30 other men.
In preparation, the inmates undergo intense fitness and job training, which includes “grueling hikes, 9-minute mile-long runs and a regime of military-style calisthenics.” Their job training is provided by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“We hiked straight up mountains with 45 pounds on our back, carrying tools and water and other necessities,” said 30-year-old Aaron Olguin, who was sentenced to over four years in prison for a drunk-driving incident that caused injury to others.
The inmate crews are considered a very valuable asset to the fire-fighting effort. The competitive mentality that many inmates have, according to National Geographic, is an advantage in their role in the program.
“Nobody wants to be outdone, nobody wants to be seen as weak, because in prison weak is the last thing you want,” said Cal Fire Captain Mike Mohler.