May 26, 2017 / 12:57 AM / 4 months ago

California inmate firefighter killed in line of duty

FILE PHOTO: Prison inmates wearing firefighting boots line up for breakfast at Oak Glen Conservation Fire Camp #35 in Yucaipa, California, U.S. November 6, 2014. Picture taken November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File photo

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - One of thousands of prison inmate volunteers trained to fight wildfires in California was killed by a falling tree in the far northwestern corner of the state, marking the fourth such fatality in 60 years, state corrections officials said on Thursday.

Matthew Beck, 26, who had been serving a six-year sentence for burglary and was due to be paroled in October, was leading a crew in clearing brush to contain a fire in the Hoopa Valley area of Del Norte County on Wednesday. He was struck by a tall, uprooted tree and suffered fatal head, neck and back injuries, officials said.

He died before he could be evacuated from the remote area, the state corrections department said.

Beck was one of roughly 3,900 specially trained prison inmates, all volunteers and all non-violent offenders, who form the backbone of California’s wildfire protection force.

Housed in 43 minimum-security “conservation camps” run by the corrections department up and down the state, the firefighting inmates also clear brush, maintain parks and work on flood control projects.

The corrections department said Beck was the fourth inmate firefighter killed in the line of duty since the unique and little-known prison labor program began in the 1940s.

A female inmate firefighter was struck and killed by a loose boulder last year in Malibu, and another inmate suffered a fatal heart attack in 2007, according to corrections spokesman Bill Sessa.

Twelve inmate firefighters nearly died in 2014 when they were forced to outrun a wall of advancing flames in the Sierras.

Many inmates earn two days off of their sentences for each day in camp. They also earn $1.45 a day in camp, plus $1 an hour for time on the fire line.

Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott

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