The Opera Fire burning in Riverside County's Highgrove area, April 30, 2017. Photo: Riverside County Fire Department/CalFire
The Opera Fire burning in Riverside County’s Highgrove area, April 30, 2017. Photo: Riverside County Fire Department/CalFire

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors Tuesday authorized the sheriff’s department to assign up to 500 inmates to the state fire camp program for firefighting, brush clearance and related operations.

“I think this has been a successful program,” Undersheriff Bill DiYorio told the board. “These folks are learning a skill. They’re doing something productive. We’d like to have more in there, but qualification can be a problem.”

Since 2013, the county has contracted with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to place inmates locked up in county detention facilities in one of three state-run fire camps throughout the region.

Under the previous agreement with CDCR, the county could only assign a maximum 200 inmates to train and work in the program. Under the just-approved two-year compact, the figure is more than doubled, though DiYorio doubted that the cap would be reached between now and July 2019.

“They have to pass the medical and complete the training,” he said. “We now have 46 county inmates involved. We average about 51 (throughout the year).”

Inmates who finish the 38-day training regimen are deployed to work on hand crews to battle wildfires, as well as reduce excess foliage in parks, cut firebreaks in the vicinity of homes and businesses, clear debris from roadsides and trails and participate in sandbagging for flood prevention.

The county pays the state $81 a day per inmate for training, and afterward, $10 daily per head for use of fire camp space.

DiYorio said the inmates are busy this year, clearing overgrowth stemming from the heavy winter rains.

According to county fire Chief John Hawkins, offenders are screened for suitability. People convicted of drug- and alcohol-related crimes are typical of those accepted into the program.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, a former firefighter, advocated for the county to take advantage of fire camps, citing the manpower benefits, as well as the opportunity to free up local correctional space.

If all 500 inmate-firefighter spots were filled, the total cost would run $2.27 million in the next fiscal year.

— City News Service 

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