Inmate Fire Fighters

By Mark Arner 

August 12, 2003

Prisoners serve state on fire lines 

UMA SANGHVI / Union-Tribune
Peter Quintana, an inmate stationed at the McCain Valley Conservation Camp near Boulevard, worked late last month on a team retrieving hoses used by firefighters in the Coyote fire.

Meet Peter Quintana, drug offender.
Quintana, 37, was convicted last year of possessing and transporting drugs. Instead of doing time in a minimum-security prison, Quintana, a construction worker by trade, is reducing his sentence by fighting fires for $1 an hour.

"You get a lot of privileges and you get a lot of peace of mind," said Quintana, an inmate stationed at the McCain Valley Conservation Camp near Boulevard. "Personally, I like this hard work. It kind of builds up your self-esteem because you're doing something productive."

Quintana is among 4,100 minimum-security prisoners who are saving state taxpayers up to $200 million annually including about $80 million in salaries by fighting fires and working on myriad public projects.

Minimum-security inmates can reduce their sentences as much as two-thirds by working through such camps, three of which are in San Diego County, said Capt. John Peck, who oversees the program for the state Department of Corrections.

Almost one-third of the state's 14,000 minimum-security prisoners take part.

With the fire season in full swing, the inmates are getting plenty of work. State officials estimate that up to 75 percent of crew members who battle California wildfires are minimum-security prisoners.

Others are assigned to duties that include building trails in state parks, working on flood-control projects, or revegetating land that has been charred by fire.

Last year, inmates put in 5.6 million hours for the state, including 3.1 million hours fighting fires, Peck said.

Crews on fire lines get paid $1 an hour. Crews doing public service work get paid about $40 a month. State officials calculate the savings in salaries at $80 million annually. The state saves an additional $120 million in employee benefits and in security costs, Peck said.

More than 300 offenders in the California Youth Authority spent 684,000 hours fighting fires last year, saving taxpayers $3.9 million, said CYA spokesman George Kostyrko.

California Department of Forestry Capt. David Rios oversaw a crew of 14 prisoner firefighters, ages 17 to 25, from the California Youth Authority recently at the Coyote fire.

Rios was impressed.

"They're a good bunch of guys," he said. "They have a very good spirit and a desire to cut very good fire break lines."

Prisoners assigned to the Conservation Camp Program are carefully screened, officials say. Only minimum-security prisoners those without a violent background can participate. Prisoners with "two strikes" on their record also are not eligible, Peck said.

Prisoners undergo a two-week physical training program, then take two weeks of classes on fire suppression before they are sent to the fire lines.

Aside from being strenuous, the job can be dangerous.

In July 1999, a 40-year-old prisoner was killed when he fell 150 feet down a slope while battling a fire in Ventura County.

Quintana said he believes he broke a toe in March while clearing a fire line to slow a blaze near Lakeside.

"It happens," he said. "It was about 2 or 3 a.m. and we didn't have much light. I swung my Pulaski (a tool to clear vegetation) and it bounced off of a branch and hit my toes."

Rather than report the injury and risk being dropped from the program, Quintana said he ignored the pain and kept on working. His toe mended itself without complications.

Quintana, a barrel-chested father of five who lives in the San Diego community of City Heights, is a typical participant, officials say. He is a model prisoner who began working as a firefighter in March. He already has battled five backcountry fires.

He is scheduled to be released in September.

"Being outdoors and not being behind razor wire, it's making my time go by a lot easier and a lot faster," Quintana said. "The commanders of this camp give you a lot of space and they don't look at us like we're convicts. They treat you like firefighters."

Mark Arner: (619) 542-4556;

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