Inmates prepare to battle rough wildfire season

Inmate fire crews tackle wildfire preparedness exercise

MORONGO VALLEY, Calif. - The winds and heat may make this a rough fire season. Cal Fire wants all its crews well prepared to fight any wildfire.

Hand crews, each made up of 15 prison inmates, hit the terrain of the Morongo Valley Reservation Wednesday. They train all year at Cal Fire work camps to prove their skills in the Fire Preparedness Exercise and to ultimately safely battle wildfires.

Their mission includes a "tool up" evaluation, where they put their tools and firefighting knowledge to the test. They challenge their endurance with a 4-mile timed hike and must deploy a fire shelter and cut lines.

"They want to showcase they are prepared for what will be a tough fire season," said Cal Fire Capt. Douglas Cade.

The exercise takes about four hours. Each prisoner must qualify for the hand crew program. They're thoroughly screened and can only have small offenses and short prison sentences.  

"It's a utilization of inmates for a great cause. They don't just come out of a prison. They're trained and do a fantastic job," said Cade.

Each inmate earns $1 for every hour he or she works on a fire. The steeper the terrain, the more valuable the crews become.

"We have engines and aircraft, all sorts of resources, but without hand crews these fires wouldn't be put out. They are a huge part of our response," said Cade.

These inmates are motivated to be out behind bars and put to work on the fire lines, said Cade. It's their way of giving back to society and keeping you safe.

"It's a life-and-death situation. We do not train to fail. Everyone will succeed," said Cade.

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