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California paying prisoners $1 per hour plus time off sentences to battle wildfires

Inmate firefighters are helping to battle wildfires in California. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

As wildfires rage across California, the state is combating the flames with every available resource — including incarcerated citizens.

How does that work?

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operates a volunteer firefighting program that allows prisoners the opportunity to earn income and time off their sentences in exchange for their labor.

CDCR has run inmate labor camps since 1915, and the first firefighting program was launched in 1945. More than 2,000 inmates are currently fighting fires in California.

Volunteer inmates must be nonviolent offenders, and cannot have prior convictions for arson or sexual crimes. The state houses participants in "conservation camps" spread across 29 counties, where they perform manual labor like clearing brush and sand bagging.

Firefighting prisoners are paid $2 per day and an additional $1 an hour when battling active fires. They make up nearly 40 percent of firefighters in California, which the CDCR claims saves taxpayers somewhere between $90 and $100 million annually.

Inmates are also able to shave time off their sentences through volunteering, according to a spokesman for the corrections department. Bill Sessa,  a spokesman for the corrections department, told CNN that inmates at conservation camps receive two days off their sentences for every one day of good behavior.

But participation in these types of programs is not risk-free. In an interview with WBUR-FM, the director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, David Fathi said,  "At least two [inmate firefighters] have died in California. Six prisoner firefighters died in a single fire in Arizona back in the '90s. So this is not a theoretical concern. This is very dangerous work."

Anything else?

The fires currently ravaging the Golden State have been deadly. Six firefighters have lost their lives this season in California. One firefighter from Utah was killed Monday while fighting the Mendocino Complex fire, which has grown to be the largest wildfire in California's history.

According to AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski, conditions may worsen as more than 100 fires currently burn in the U.S., mostly in drought-stricken Western states.

In a report published Wednesday, Sosnowski wrote, "Multiple soaking rainstorms are needed to alleviate the wildfire danger. Even a fraction of the rain the Eastern and Central states have been receiving would help. However, hope for these types of storms are months away for California, much of Oregon, Nevada and Utah."

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