They're the unsung heroes in fighting Southern California's wildfires and they're convicted felons.

They have dug fire lines and cut trees. They've hustled households to security and wielded garden hoses in hopes of saving houses.

They are the unsung heroes in combating Southern California's wildfires -- plus they are convicted felons.

"We save million-dollar houses for a dollar an hour," said Ricky Frank, 33, carrying out a 10-year stretch for theft. It's Better doing this than being locked up"

More than half of the state's 3,800 full-time wildland firefighters are Prison inmates earning $1 an hour because they work off sentences for Nonviolent crimes like theft and drug possession. About 2,150 Offenders -- either minimum security wards of the California Youth Authority or adults sentenced to the California Department of Corrections  have been out fighting the flames.

"We would not be half of the fire section we are now without them," said Karen Terrill, forestry department spokeswoman. Stories that would bring tears into your eyes"

The convicts usually are out of sight  as they were Sunday, laying Over a mile of hose, cutting fire lines and grubbing stubborn

On the day the fire at San Bernadino County flared into a wind-whipped Monster, nevertheless, residents there caught a rare glimpse of the prisoners In the unusual job of trying to guard homes.

The inmate crews are neither trained nor equipped for fighting house fires. However, a 28-inmate strike team happened to be one of the first to arrive. They grabbed garden hoses and borrowed chain saws from homeowners. Burglars and thieves risked their lives to rescue prized Possessions from doomed homes.

You're Wondering if you're need to go out a window" to escape, said Greg Welch, 34, serving seven years of selling drugs. "It was chaos."

The homeowners didn't understand the firefighters dressed in bright orange were inmates.

1 family asked team members back for dinner an invitation they had to decline. Another family spotted them leaving a restaurant days after And rushed to thank them.

Still another night,"a man and his wife just drove up and handed us around a Hundred burgers. This was pretty cool," remembered convicted burglar "They treated us just like another human, which can be nice."

The state began using inmates to do roadwork in 1915, also started its own First temporary inmate fire camps during World War II. The program now Has 4,100 inmates in 38 conservation camps: 33 operated by the forestry Three of those camps -- two nation And one county are for women.

"There is nothing charitable happening this," Terrill said. "These men Get exactly the identical training, equipment and do exactly the exact same work as a routine crew."

When they're not fighting fires for $1 an hour, they're earning as Small as $1.40 a day cleaning up parks, rebuilding trails, or making or Renovating toys. But every day they operate, they get two days Their sentence off.

"It knocks a year off my own time. You can't beat it. It's better than Sitting about prison," said Allen Preslar, 53, serving a seven-year drug sentence.

The inmates perform"lousy, backbreaking, quite difficult work," stated John Peck, who manages the Corrections Department's conservation camp program.

Yet, often for the very first time in their lives, they are forced to work Real, quantifiable achievement.

"We're trying to do something to save taxpayer money, we are trying to do Good quality work, we are trying to get these guys to determine how great it Feels when you are not on the street corner selling drugs," Peck said.

Violent criminals, sex offenders and escape dangers aren't qualified. Those Chosen for the program generally have short sentences staying, so There's an incentive to not flee or lead to trouble, which could earn a Longer term or a transfer back behind bars.

Peck and Terrill tell the story of a convict team that was ready to pull Straight back from a dangerously explosive 1993 fire in Malibu whenever they seen

People down the hill," recounts Terrill. Seconds later all were safe, The hillside erupted in fire.


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