Thousands of them have been battling California’s wildfires, working along the flames’ edges during yet another terrible fire season in the drought-stricken state. These men and women are prisoners, wearing orange jumpsuits beneath their gear and repaying their debts outside their cells.

There are nearly 4,000 nonviolent offenders in one of the nation’s largest inmate firefighting forces; lately, inmates have accounted for about 40 percent of those fighting fires in the parched state that’s been called a “tinderbox” by Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

The inmates’ role has become vital to California’s budget: providing much-needed manpower for $2 or $3 a day, they have saved taxpayers in the state some $80 million per year. With so much of the state catching fire, and with the overall inmate population shrinking, authorities were considering expanding the program, adding some prisoners convicted of violent crimes to the pool of eligible firefighters, according to the Associated Press.

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“We’re just looking to widen the pool,” California Corrections Department spokesman Bill Sessa told The Washington Post. “It doesn’t mean everyone will get chosen.”

But late Tuesday, amid growing criticism, the proposal was scrapped while it was still in a final review stage.

“We will not be changing that,” a different department spokesman told the AP. “We’re not looking to expand the list of crimes that inmates have committed when considering who is eligible for fire camp service.”

The spokesman, Jeffrey Callison, denied that the proposal was killed off because of negative publicity.

“Nothing was finalized, and even without the stories who knows what might have emerged?” he told the AP.

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Had the plan been approved, Sessa said earlier, the Corrections Department would have sought new inmates who are “very similar to inmates already in the program” — ones in minimum security with a history of good behavior. Some would have been excluded still: Arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang members and murderers.

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“We’re not only looking at their convictions,” Sessa said, explaining that the terms “violent” and “nonviolent” refer only to conviction classifications. “What we’re looking at is their behavior.”

Over the years, inmates have been sent to fight fires in states from Arizona to Wyoming. In California, where more than 5,700 wildfires have been recorded this year alone, nonviolent offenders trained to back up civilian firefighters on the ground have proved invaluable.

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That said, their help has not come without incident.

These inmates have been blamed for numerous assaults and batteries, weapons violations, indecent exposures and escapes, according to data obtained by the AP. And some officials are concerned that adding more violent offenders to the mix is just asking for trouble.

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State Sen. Jim Nielsen (R), a former parole commissioner, had called the idea “unconscionable.”

“They’re weighing this minor good against a major bad of compromising justice and the safety of our citizens,” Nielsen told the AP before the plan was scrapped.

Sessa said that most of these incidents — including “walk-aways” — occur at camp.

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“You’re going to have incidents in camps,” he told The Post. “They don’t occur on fire lines.”

“When these guys are on the fire line, they work under a CAL FIRE captain,” he added. “They’re digging containment lines with 80 pounds of gear on their backs, working for 24 straight hours.”

California’s Conservation Camp Program, run by the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, took off during World War II, when many able-bodied men went to war, according to the program’s Web site. Inmates formed “temporary camps” to back up firefighters who were still at home. Today, the force also includes women and youths.

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Adult inmates who wish to volunteer and meet qualifications are put through an intense two-week physical fitness program and then a two-week fire-safety course, according to the program’s Web site.

Inmates “are not the ones up in the helicopters” spraying fire retardant on the blaze below, Sessa told the Marshall Project over the summer. “But they’re in the thick of it, cutting fire lines and helping to save large areas of California.”

They are beating the heat from the outside, clearing vegetation, for example. “Their job is extremely dangerous,” Sessa old BBC News Magazine. “There are a handful of major injuries a year — when inmates are hit on the head by a falling tree top, flying debris or break an arm.”

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And, the inmates say, it’s back-breaking work.

“You’ve got about 40 pounds of gear on you — it’s definitely hot, you are constantly sweating,” James Sharp, who has worked as an inmate firefighter, told the magazine. “We work 24-hour shifts, and the last fire I was on — the Rocky fire in Lake County, which burned about 69,000 acres and threatened homes — was on very steep terrain. We had to get flown in on a helicopter twice and hike 10 miles to get out at the end of the day. It was pretty intense, and went on for 32 days straight. I was very tired, worn out, drained.”

Still, inmates say, fighting fires has its advantages, compared to other prison jobs.

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In addition to the meager pay, which is still higher than most prison positions, working in the fire service can help speed up a prisoner’s release; in the meantime, it gives inmates time outside.

Jacques D’Elia, a former California inmate who fought fires from 2011 through 2013, told the Marshall Project that when he was on the fire lines, he sometimes forgot he was a prisoner.

“The staff treated you like a human, not a number,” he said. “The boundaries were more relaxed, just a split-rail fence and some out-of-bounds markers, no locks on the doors.

“You were just out there in these beautiful woods, with deer, wolves, bobcats. You had views across the valley at sunrise, out over 100 miles of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which really changes your outlook from when you were in prison.”

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“It gets scary sometimes, but at the same time, it makes me feel good,” Henry Cruz, who was sent to San Quentin for a crime he would not discuss, told BBC News Magazine. “Being a firefighter is a privilege — it makes you feel like you are in civilization. I like saving nature, and sometimes people. It makes me feel like a hero.”

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Despite the clear rewards, however, some inmates recognize more of the risks.

Demetrius Barr, who fought fires as a Los Angeles County inmate, told BuzzFeed last year he was angry when he thought how much work he was putting in for how much he was getting out of it.

“Pshh, this might be beyond slavery, whatever this is,” he told the news site. “They don’t have a whip. That’s the difference.”

Nevertheless, the program has proven so essential to the state’s fire response that when the Supreme Court ordered California to release prisoners due to overcrowding, the state’s deputy attorney general worried that releasing too many inmates too soon “would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought,” according to the Marshall Project.

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Mike Lopez, president of the state’s firefighters union, told the AP he was all for the inmate program but was concerned about using criminals convicted of violent crimes.

“Any acceptance of criminals with a violent background calls into question the security of our membership,” he said prior to the late Tuesday announcement. “At what risk is CalFire willing to go to get those inmates?”

CalFire spokeswoman Janet Upton would not comment on the proposed changes before they were killed off but told the news agency that “nobody is interested in seeing this program go away.”

This story, originally published Oct. 13, has been updated.

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