August 6, 2013 (San Diego)-- The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday moved to ensure that low-risk prisoners remain on the front lines of backcountry firefighting.
By unanimous vote, the board authorized county staff to complete an agreement with state officials that would house qualified inmates at local fire camps operated by the state. The move came at the urging of Supervisor Dianne Jacob, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Sheriff Bill Gore and county Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer.
“Keeping the camps open is critical to public safety because they provide much-needed boots on the ground when wildfire hits,” said Supervisor Jacob, board vice chairwoman. “Inmate crews put added muscle into our efforts to manage overgrown brush and to fight major blazes.”
The number of male and female prisoners housed at state fire camps is thinning due to a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, affirmed last week, that requires California to lower its inmate population. Many are transferred to county jails as part of a statewide process known as prison realignment.
“Re-establishing the process of sending approved inmates to fire camps has the double benefit of easing the jail population and helping protect San Diego County from wildfires,” said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. “It makes sense as law enforcement in the county works together to respond to the ongoing challenges of prisoner realignment.”
Under a housing contract that is expected to be finalized, about 50 inmates would be transferred from county facilities to local state-run camps. They would join prisoners who are already serving time at the rural outposts.
The county plans to budget as much as $950,000 in state realignment money to pay for the housing arrangement during the current fiscal year.
Funding beyond the middle of next year is uncertain. Under current California policy, the state must charge counties $46 a day to house realigned offenders at fire camps. San Diego County officials plan to ask Sacramento lawmakers to reduce or eliminate that fee.
Dropping the fee would give counties a financial incentive to shift qualified prisoners to fire camps, freeing up more jail space to absorb the huge number of state inmates being transferred under realignment.
A report issued in May by the San Diego County Grand Jury emphasized the importance of the four local fire camps and recommended the county act swiftly to help keep them in year-around operation.
Inmate firefighters have been at the backbone of state fire protection efforts for decades. The California prison system, working with Cal Fire, operates more than 40 fire camps statewide.
The four camps in San Diego County are located near the backcountry communities of Rainbow, Warner Springs, McCain Valley and Julian.