“When they’re on the fire line, the fire doesn’t discriminate.”
A week later, Northern California’s wine country and surrounding areas are still on fire. The counties of Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino and Butte have been decimated by flames since last Sunday—to date the Atlas, Tubbs, Nuns and Patrick wildfires combined have burned over 170,000 acres, forced over 20,000 from their homes, and caused the deaths of 38 people. Over 100 people are still reported missing.
Photo: Dan Honda| Bay Area News Group
Firefighters from all over the state are fighting the flames, some who have been on duty for several days straight, battling one of the worst wildfire disasters in California history.
Inside the ranks of the brave men and women are a lesser known group of women working to try and contain this 1400-degree-plus behemoth. About 3800 inmates serving time for non-violent crimes, including 200 women volunteers, help make up 13 percent of California’s firefighters. Packing water, safety glasses and prepacked meals for the long hours of battle, the crews come equipped with tools like chainsaws and short hoses that can be attached to hydrants to help manage the fast-moving fires and keep them from spreading. The combined weight of their entire load can weigh as much as 40 pounds.
Photo Credit: ABC10 News
“We are the ones that do the line. We are the line of defense,” said Sandra Welsh, a prison inmate and a member of Malibu Conservation Camp #13, one of several groups either on standby or on the front lines of the wildfires currently burning in the state.
To be included a fire camp, inmates must pass the same rigorous training as Cal Fire workers, says Bill Sessa, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “When they’re on the fire line, the fire doesn’t discriminate.”
There are 3 fire camps for female inmates, and each volunteer earns $1 an hour when fighting fires and two days off their sentence for every day they work. The state of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates taxpayers are saved 124 million dollars per year by working with inmate firefighter volunteers.
“You get to save people’s houses,” said Melissa Logan, an inmate at the California Institution for Women in Chino, CA. “It’s really gratifying and empowering when you’re driving by and people are holding up signs saying, ‘Thank you, firefighters’ because you just saved their homes.”
Investigations regarding the cause of the fire continue, including the state’s Public Utilities Commission’s probe into whether a power maintenance issue may have contributed to the spread of the fire.
Sources: NBC Los Angeles, East Bay Times, Mercury News