By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Battling one of California's first major wildfires of the year, Kevin Black suddenly realized the only way to keep from being engulfed by flames roaring up a hillside toward his team was to finish the buffer line they were hacking through drought-parched brush.
"Either we get this line in, or we burn," Black, 54, recalled shouting as he and his fellow crew members - all prison inmates clad in orange fatigues - hurried to cut a 6-foot-wide (1.8 meter-wide) fire break with hand tools in the thick scrub.
The squad survived, and firefighters ultimately managed to contain the 2,100-acre (850-hectare) blaze in early May without losing any of the homes threatened in the wealthy community of Rancho Cucamonga, east of Los Angeles.
Black is among thousands of convicted felons who form the backbone of California's wildfire protection force under a unique and little-known prison labor program.
But California may soon find it harder to recruit new inmate firefighters after a ballot measure was passed last month to ease prison crowding by reducing felony sentences to misdemeanor jail terms for most non-violent, low-level offenses, including many drug crimes.
That measure will likely diminish the very segment of the inmate population that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, draws upon to fill its wildland firefighting crews.
Housed in 39 minimum-security "conservation camps" run by the state corrections department, the firefighting inmates also do brush clearance, flood control and park maintenance projects.
Despite sentencing reforms that may reduce the inmate firefighting pool, Cal Fire officials say they are determined to continue excluding violent criminals, sex offenders and arsonists from the program.
Misdemeanor offenders, with shorter sentences, have long been ineligible because training them is not considered worth the investment.
"It might do some damage to our pipeline," said corrections Sergeant John Lanthripp, assistant commander of the largest of the camps, Oak Glen, in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains.
The change comes as California firefighting resources are increasingly stretched by more large wildfires, and a longer fire season, attributed to the state's prolonged drought.
Some 4,300 California inmates, including about 200 women, are assigned to the camps and comprise Cal Fire's entire corps of specially trained ground crews who battle wildfires without water - using tools like chainsaws, shovels and axes. They account for nearly half of Cal Fire's total year-round force.
Other states employ inmate labor to fight wildfires, but none like California, which saves up to $100 million annually in personnel costs through its program.
Participation is voluntary, and many inmates earn two days off their sentences for each day in camp. The pay is scant - just $1.45 a day in camp plus $1 an hour on the fire line.
"Nobody in the world would do this work for that kind of money. That's why they use us," said Oak Glen inmate firefighter Ishmil Swafford, 35, who is ineligible for a reduction in his 10-year-plus term for burglary.
Many in the camps, which inmates say offer more freedom than conventional prisons, also see the program as a means of building discipline, teamwork, and a resume of sorts ahead of release.
"It re-acclimates you to going back to society," said Black, due for release in February after serving nearly a 12-year sentence for robbery, about a third of that at Oak Glen.
The inmates' main job is to carve containment lines. Under supervision of Cal Fire captains, they work with heavy gear in intense heat and rugged terrain, often in 24-hour shifts.
The work is dangerous. Twelve inmate firefighters nearly died this year when they were forced to outrun a wall of advancing flames in the Sierras.
But fatalities are rare. The last inmate killed in the line of duty suffered a heart attack in 2007, Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler said.
Still, critics say the program raises questions about the inherently coercive nature of inmate labor and speaks volumes about prison conditions generally.
"It's telling us something when people are more willing, literally, to go into a fire than stay imprisoned in a cell," said Mohamed Shehk, a spokesman for advocacy group Critical Resistance.
Officials acknowledge inmate firefighters would be sorely missed if the state had to do without them.
"They do a tremendous amount of work for us, and honestly, we'd be hurting if we didn't have these crews in place," Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynn Tolmachoff said.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)