Inmates join fight against California wildfires

Firefighting inmates

YUCAIPA, Calif. -- Dozens of large wildfires are burning in the west Sunday, including several in California. Some may be surprised to hear that about 20 percent of California’s fire crews are inmates.

To take part in the program, the prisoners can not be convicted of certain crimes -- including arson. But for the inmates who can participate, the program is changing lives.

They’re among the first to hit the front lines of California’s dangerous wildfires. The orange uniforms let people know -- these firefighters -- are inmates.

Inmates fighting wildfires in California.  CBS News

“It’s a big opportunity,” said inmate Robert Lane. 

 Lane joined California’s inmate firefighter program about five years ago.

He saw it as a chance for redemption. Lane said he’s in prison for a violent crime, a GBI, meaning great bodily injury. 

“I’m giving back to the community for what I did,” he said. 

Inmate Robert Lane.  CBS News

The voluntary program is the largest of its kind in the country. Inmates are given basic training. 

They are taught to dig fire containment lines, and clear paths so other crews can reach the flames.

They put their lives on the line for $2 a day. 

“It is dangerous work and a volunteer program, so we shouldn’t take it for granted just because they’re inmates that they have to be out there,” said Keith Guillory with the California Department of Corrections. 

“We’re not really convicts on the back of this bus, we’re treated as firefighters,” said Lane. “It is a good feeling.”

Lane said it has changed him. 

“It has, it absolutely has… it lets you know that you’re worth something,” he said. 

Lane said he’ll take that sense of pride with him when he’s released from prison later this year.