Inmates paid $1 an hour to put out forest fires
ARCADIA, Calif. – One of the toughest jobs in the most difficult terrain fighting a brush fire in the foothills of Los Angeles Tuesday was being handled by 100 men being paid $1 an hour.
The orange-suited state prisoners are members of fire crews from camps in the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests. Only 200 feet to 300 feet from flames occasionally sprouting on the western flank of the Santa Anita fire, the prisoners were cutting a fire break about 1,000 feet up a steep hillside.
About an hour into their work day, a rock the size of a basketball dislodged and fell toward a group of about 20 men. Most shouted ”rock, rock” as it rolled by, but one inmate was unable to get out of the way. A Los Angeles County fire team at the bottom of the hill radioed for an ambulance.
There are 36 camps of male inmate firefighters, each with 40 to 70 men.
”It’s been a busy year, probably 20 fires,” said Capt. Jerry Dalebout, inmate firefighter supervisor from Fenner Canyon Conservation Camp.
Capt. Carl Thomas from the Pilot Rock camp near Lake Silverwood agreed.
”Since June, we’ve had maybe six to 10 days off. Working fires doesn’t give them time off for good behavior, but they prefer it because they get $1 an hour, they’re outside and in minimum security. Most of them are in their early 30s. One guy’s 59 but he’s in real good shape,” Thomas said.
Capt. Mark Hotchkiss, also from Pilot Rock, said even though it’s winter, there’s still danger of heat exhaustion.
The trees they cut for a fire break were on the side of a steep hill. The logs rolled 300 feet to 500 feet toward Santa Anita Road like tumbleweeds.
Every three or four minutes, helicopters would arrive to hit hillside hot spots. The inmates were sometimes doused with water.
”In every fire we have something that’s a hazard, whether it’s falling rocks, killer bees, steep terrain, helicopter and tanker drops on top of us, not to mention the fires,” Thomas said.
Statewide, Thomas said, one inmate firefighter was killed when he fell off a cliff and another was killed by a falling rock. As he spoke, the drone of a helicopter sounded 200 feet above as it dropped water near his team working with chainsaws, shovels and rakes.