Monterey County

Prison realignment hurting CAL FIRE hand crew staffing

Inmate hand crews can save state $100 million in firefighting efforts, department of corrections said

Fire crews struggle to find inmate crews to fight fires

Gabriel Ramos admits he made a mistake. He blacked out one New Year's Eve and crashed his car, injuring a woman.

"I woke up pretty much in a cell," Ramos said.

For the past three years of his five-year sentence in the Salinas Valley State Prison, he's been serving his time as a part of a hand crew for CAL FIRE.

"You are doing your time and you're making a difference," Ramos said. "I told myself that I'm going to do the best I could possibly do with that opportunity."

As two Central Coast hand crews are headed to the wildfire in Napa County, it's a resource that could be harder to come by if they can't tap into the county jails.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said using inmates, 17 of them in each hand crew, can save the state $100 million in firefighting efforts.

But with the prison realignment bill, AB 109, lower-level offenders are now being housed in county jails, shrinking the pool of inmates to draw from. As a result, the CDCR is asking county jails to fill the void and so far the Monterey and San Benito county areas haven't felt a loss of man power

"Right now it's still staffed with its full complement of six crews," Jonathan Pangburn, CAL FIRE's information officer.

Whether it's clearing brush or cutting through vegetation, inmate hand crews are a key piece to the puzzle of putting a stop to a wildfire.

"There are many areas where you can't take equipment and that's when you send in a hand crew," said Pangburn.

CAL FIRE says prison inmate hand crews are just as important to firefighting efforts as a firetruck or a hose.

And with eight months left on his sentence, Ramos says the program at the Gabilan Conservation Camp has changed his life

"I just can't wait to get out and actually use (my skills)," he said.

Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz county jails have not supplied CAL FIRE with hand crews yet.

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