California turns to prisoners to fight huge fires

SANTA YSABEL, California Fri Oct 26, 2007 5:05pm EDT

1 of 7. Female prisoners working in a remote mountainous area of the Witch Fire past Santa Ysabel, California to build a protection line against spreading fire, October 25, 2007. Of about 9,000 firefighters battling the southern California flames, nearly 3,000 are inmates. The prisoners typically get two days off their sentence for each on the fire lines. About 300 are from all-women prisoner brigades. Picture taken October 25, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Adam Tanner

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SANTA YSABEL, California (Reuters) - As California struggles to extinguish some of the state's most devastating forest fires, it has turned to a record number of prisoners for some of the most demanding work.

Overnight on Friday, women like Carmen Rebelez, 38, a convicted drug offender, and Michelle Millard, 33, serving five years for counterfeit checks and money, were uprooting plants and clearing flammable trees and shrubs.

Such work is designed to create a perimeter around the Witch Fire, the most dangerous of the California blazes, and keep it from spreading.

"I've been doing time my whole entire life, since I was 14," Millard said. "It's time I learned something different."

Added Rebelez: "I want to make a change in my lifestyle, so when I get out, I can do something positive. ... We made some wrong choices and we are making an effort to change."

Of about 9,000 firefighters battling the southern California flames, nearly 3,000 are inmates. The prisoners typically get two days off their sentence for each on the fire lines. About 300 are from all-women prisoner brigades.

Millard worked with a small team of women in a remote area about two hours northeast of San Diego. To get to the mountainside that needed protection, the women hiked for an hour over charred landscape and brush.

"It's backbreaking work. It's the hardest work I've ever done," said Tonya Randall Evans, a former hotel cleaner with a 5 1/2-year prison sentence for dealing cocaine. "But it's given me six months off my sentence."

Inmate Susan Segal, 42, fell about 25 feet down the precarious mountainside on Thursday, but was soon back on the job.

She and the others wore orange fire protective garb (regular firefighters wear yellow), hard hats and 60-pound (27-kg) backpacks. Their faces were blackened by soot.

PRAISE FROM THE PROS

Such work earns praise from many firefighters, who said this week's fires were among the most difficult they've had to fight.

"They are the workhorses. They do the real difficult physical labor," said Jeff Terpstra, a battalion chief from Aptos, California. "They are on their best behavior. It's a right they earn."

Two inmates died fighting fires in 1999 and 2000 in the California program started after World War Two. Most in the program are serving only a few years and have committed nonviolent crimes.

Tom Klimas, a fireman who has managed prison crews for the past seven years, said, "It's draining -- emotionally, physically, mentally. A lot of them have never had jobs before, other than cooking drugs. A lot of them have not been part of a team.

"Most people don't want to work with inmates," he said, adding that he was first lured by a 10 percent bonus for the position before becoming enthusiastic about such work.

Inmates earn about $1 an hour when fighting fires, a salary the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says saves state taxpayers $80 million a year.

Inmates rarely try to escape from the fire lines, California prison officials say, but last year, 11 tried to flee from the minimum security camps where they live.

When two inmates were given the task on Thursday of hiking up the mountain with an unsupervised hour-long return to bring back more water, one said it would be pointless to try to escape.

They were in a remote region and, as a two-time offender, she did not want to risk triggering California's stern 25-year punishment for third-time offenders.

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