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Budget Battle May Take Inmates Off The Frontlines Of Fighting Wildfires

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SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Cal Fire is fired up over how the budget battle might make battling fires a lot more difficult.  The department has used prisoners for years, but that workforce could be drying up.

Starting July 1, the plan is to keep low-risk inmates in county jails instead of sending them to state prison; the same low-risk inmates Cal Fire uses on the frontlines of every wildfire across California.

There are 4300 non-violent inmate hand crews that clear brush, cut breaks and help put out hotspots with Cal Fire each summer, and the cost – only a dollar an hour per inmate.

“They provide a huge service for a very little amount of money,” say Cal Fire officials.

But now, the state plans to keep that workforce in county jails, leaving Cal Fire wondering where they’ll get the bodies needed to battle blazes.

But to try and stop that from happening, Cal Fire will have to try getting the okay from each county sheriff, one by one.

“With 58 different counties, we’re not even sure yet that each of the counties is on the same page with allowing the program,” officials explain.

Tina and Richard Traister know the next fire could come close to their home, and they want inmates there to help stop it.

“I think it’s a good idea, they may need to repay some of their debt back to society,” says Richard.

But if Cal Fire can’t get the low-cost labor, the only other option would be to hire professional firefighters, which is a hefty price tag for taxpayers.

“We’re talking hundreds of millions, maybe up to a billion dollars.  So in this budget time, it’s not even feasible; we cannot replace the inmate program with paid firefighters,” Cal Fire officials tell CBS13.

It’s still not a done deal; housing low level inmates in county jail will only happen if the state can come up with the money to house them there.  More information on the matter should surface around July 1.

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