The next time fire sweeps through the parched hills of the San Gabriel Mountains, firefighters are hoping that state prisoners will be nearby to come to the rescue.
"The inmates are our infantry," Steve Sherrill, assistant chief for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said. "We have to rely on them in life-and-death situations."
The Fire Department--which maintains 10 fire suppression camps, six of which are operated by minimum-security inmates--has requested that a camp be established in the San Gabriel Canyon to bolster its fire prevention capacity in eastern sections of the county.
The work camp would be located at Camp Klein, an abandoned Conservation Corps facility on the East Fork of the San Gabriel River.
Move by Governor
However, the proposal did not get a strong push until Gov. George Deukmejian, in an apparently unrelated move, asked the Legislature two weeks ago to approve a $77-million emergency plan to relieve overcrowding in the state's 12 prisons.
Included in Deukmejian's proposal was a plan to convert Camp Klein into a Level 1 minimum-security prison camp for 150 state inmates on an 18-month temporary basis. Level 1 inmates are selected by corrections officers for having demonstrated a good work record while in prison; they do not include inmates who have committed violent crimes, officials said.
Although Deukmejian's plan and the Fire Department's request were introduced separately, the two proposals are being considered jointly.
Besides easing prison overcrowding and boosting fire protection, the proposed camp would be part of a larger trend toward using state inmates for constructive work projects, said George Morgan, information officer for the state Department of Corrections.
Morgan said that while prison camps have been in operation in California since the Great Depression, the state has made a concerted effort in recent years to involve inmates in a variety of community work projects.
"We're attempting to increase the acceptance of communities for the use of inmate work crews," he said, adding that all inmates are required by state law to work. "This meets a lot of peoples' needs concurrently."
Penal Code Amendment
In addition, a 1982 amendment to the Penal Code known as the "day-for-day" law allows inmates to reduce their sentences by one day for every day worked. Before the amendment, inmates could reduce their sentences only by good behavior.
"We have requests from various communities to install camps in their area, because they have work there that they can't finance," Morgan said. "The services would be the same as if L.A. County ran the camp. It's just a different person providing that service."
Inmates at Camp Klein would provide assistance primarily to the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service, working on fire prevention, flood control and road construction projects in Angeles National Forest.
According to Sherrill, each fire suppression camp provides hundreds of man-hours of fire prevention and community service work each day.
"This is really just an extension of an existing program," Sherrill said. "In the past, they've proved to be an excellent benefit to the community."
The U.S. Forest Service also has supported the use of inmates for conservation projects.
"They'd work side by side with us," Don Stikkers, ranger for the Mt. Baldy District, said. "There's a lot more work than we have manpower to do. This would be a big, big help to us."
Residents of the East Fork have not expressed objections to the plan.
"I really don't have any qualms," said Joe Davison, owner of the nearby 122-site Follows Camp, which is open to the public. "It could be an asset to the area."
Although Camp Klein would be secured and monitored by corrections officers, no physical restraints such as barbed wire or guard towers would be constructed.
"I'm not going to tell you that an inmate has never walked away, but the incidence rate is very low," Morgan said. "The other aspect is that, if an inmate does walk away, he is nonviolent and not a real threat to anyone living in the neighborhood."
The camp is currently being used by the San Dimas Sheriff's Reserves as a temporary base for their weekend patrols and by the Azusa School District as an environmental teaching facility.
Sherrill said that the Fire Department would compensate by teaching a forestry program for the school district, taking students on field trips to nurseries, nature trails and tree rehabilitation sites.
"The bottom line is that it will be a plus for us," said Sgt. Rod Morris, coordinator of the San Dimas Sheriff's Reserves. "It will put more people in the canyon who are law enforcement types."