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No Firefighter Shortage Despite State's Shrinking Prison Population

Noah Berger / AP

Inmate firefighters battle the Wragg fire near Winters, Calif., on Thursday, July 23, 2015. The fire burned 8,051 acres.

Noah Berger / AP

Of the more than 10,000 firefighters battling California wildfires right now, roughly 40 percent of them are criminals – inmates who participate in fire camps. There’s been some fear that the reduction in the state’s prison population might lead to a shortage of firefighters. But that fear hasn’t played out.

California has relied on state prison inmates for decades to help fight wildfires. But the state’s prison population is shrinking – thanks to federal court orders, Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment program and voter-approved Proposition 47. And Cal Fire has worried that one of its major labor forces could crumble as a result.

Bill Sessa with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the state may need to rely more on county jail inmates in a few years, “but all of the predictions up to now of having a reduced prison inmate population to work the fires have kind of fallen through – because even though we have fewer inmates than we used to have, we still have enough.”

Of the nearly 4,000 California inmates working in fire camps this week, all but 200 of them are state prison inmates.