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Climate Report Southwest

As wildfires rage, California is putting prisoners to work on the front lines

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Updated November 15, 2018 04:50 PM EST

WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — More than 200 inmates are currently on the front lines in what's become the deadliest wildfire in California history. Since the fires started last Thursday, at least 59 people have been killed and another 130 people are still missing.
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Editor's note: The story below was originally published July 14, 2017.

WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — California’s dry climate, Santa Ana winds, and long periods of drought create the perfect combination for wildfires. Every year between May and November, at the height of wildfire season, the state turns to inmates for help.

California isn’t the only state with a prison firefighter program, but it relies on inmate firefighters far more than anyone else.

California Inmate Firefighters
FILE - In this July 30, 2008, file photo, female inmate firefighters hike cut to a fireline on the Telegraph Fire near Yosemite National Park near Mariposa, Calif. (AP Photo/Ron Lewis, File)

Inmates aren’t allowed to operate helicopters or even a hose; they’re given hand tools, such as chainsaws and axes, to battle flames more than 100 feet tall and clear nearby brush to stop fires from spreading. For months, thousands of inmate firefighters battle raging wildfires in drought-stricken California. They earn just $2 an hour in return for doing an exhausting, dirty and dangerous job.

Western Wildfires
This Saturday, July 8, 2017, photo released by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows the moon rising over flames on a hilltop near Highway 166 east of Santa Maria, Calif., in what is known as the Alamo Fire in Santa Barbara County, Calif. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, inmate firefighters work more than 3 million hours a year, saving the state an estimated $90 million a year.

When they’re not fighting fires, the inmates live in camps across the state, in the middle of the forest and mountains, to work on fire prevention and other community service projects, like picking up roadkill.

Inmate firefighters are paid more than most prison labor jobs, but critics say states relying on the cheap labor of prisoners could prevent lawmakers from passing laws on criminal justice reform.

Prison labor has been a major source of revenue since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude "except as a punishment for crime" in 1865.

Two California inmates have died in the line of duty since the start of 2017.

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