Fire experts are predicting another hot, dry year in California, increasing the risk of wildfires a year after an especially bad season in 2020. The surge in fires has led some to consider the methods in which they are fought.

At the San Mateo County Parks Commission’s April 1 meeting, commissioners discussed the use of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Conservation Camp Program, which employs inmates to help fight active fires and do mitigation work.

The program is voluntary, and not all inmates are eligible. Those with a history of sexual offenses, arson or escape can’t join the program. But some civil rights groups say the work is akin to slavery, disproportionally calls on minorities and that state inmates have no practical option to refuse to work.

The Parks Commission is considering sending a letter to the Board of Supervisors to examine the value of this state program and determine whether the county could pay inmates more for their work. Commissioner Heather Green, who drafted a letter to the Board of Supervisors, acknowledged the value of the program. The issue now becomes if, and how, the county could pay for the services.

“This work is so valuable to all of us. It’s protecting our homes, air, parks and safety,” Green said. “I think we could find a way to properly, or at least better, compensate that work in line with our established evaluation of work, which is our minimum wage.”

Just how much the county might be willing to pay remains to be seen. Commissioners wondered about the practicality of minimum wage and considered visiting an active camp to learn more.

The county’s discussion comes as the debate surrounding prison labor reaches the state level. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors last month voted unanimously to support Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3, a state constitutional amendment that aims to prohibit involuntary servitude in California prisons. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in September that allows select crew members to have their record expunged, meaning they could become firefighters after they complete their sentence and the program without incident.

As of October, 1,800 inmates work between 35 camps operated by Cal Fire and the Corrections Department, with 1,200 prisoners fire line-trained. Wages are set by Corrections, and commissioners aren’t expecting sweeping changes anytime soon.

During active fires, inmates are paid $1 per day. Some, depending on specialized skills like wielding chainsaws, earn between $2.90 to $3.90 per day. Additionally, each crew member receives two days off their sentence for every one day they serve as a firefighter.

“I really think they should be compensated for a lot more than a measly can of soda or a bag of chips,” said Commissioner Basem Manneh. “These guys work really hard and some are trying to get their lives back together.”

In February, the Parks Department’s five-year Wildfire Mitigation Plan was approved by the Board of Supervisors. It outlines 32 projects that will cost more than $18 million from both county and grant funding. Not all of that money is expected, so the department looks for ways to cut costs by working in-house and with the conservation camps.

Nicholas Calderon, the Parks Department director, said most of the camps that work in San Mateo County focus on conservation and wildfire prevention, like clearing brush and fallen trees. Calderon explained one of the most important projects camp crews worked on last year was a shaded fuel break on Old Haul Road in Pescadero Creek Park, which was the northeastern fire line during the CZU August Lightning Complex fires.

“Through the hard work of the conservation crews, the threat of wildfire in San Mateo County and our parks has been mitigated significantly,” Calderon said.

The county’s current model provides cheap fire mitigation. The county pays $250 per workday for a crew of nine to 12 people, which covers transportation, supplies and saw fuel. In 2014, the county employed camps for just three days, which cost $750. In 2015, it used camp services for 50 days, costing $12,500.

The Parks Department did not use the crews last year because of the number of fires statewide. The consensus among the Parks Commission was that the program was valuable to the county, but opinions differ about just how valuable the experience is for prisoners. Given the dangerous nature of firefighting combined with the paltry pay, commissioners wonder how best to proceed. Green noted that if the county paid a group of 12 inmates $15.62 per hour it would cost the county about $48,000 for 32 eight-hour days.

“It’s $50,000 to change the narrative and show what’s possible,” Green said. “And I would love to see us do something like that.”

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