To the untrained eye, every firefighter on the front line looks the same with their face fully covered, protected from the heat and a brightly colored jumpsuit layered with supplies. 30 to 40 percent of these brave men and women are actually prison Inmates. The only visible difference between the inmates and regularly employed firefighters is the orange jumpsuit worn in place of the yellow one normally worn by firefighters. These inmates volunteer to help in the battle against Forest Fires and stay in what is called a conservation camp for a whole year, doing either preventative work or actively battling the flames, according to Nina Gaensler-Debs, KALW.

Forest conservation camps manned by inmates

The inmate firefighting program was developed after WWII because of the shortage of manpower after the war and is now viewed as a necessity in the battle against California's harrowing fire problem. The average number of fires per year in the state has been steadily increasing since the 1970's. There are not enough firefighters to operate at the level needed [VIDEO] to combat the state's yearly fires but with the help of the conservation camp program, the job is made possible, though still not a task for the faint of heart. At $2 per hour, inmates are paid over twice the national average as those working in prison, while also allowing the state to save $80 million a year in related costs. California operates 43 conservation camps where inmates stay year-round, working either to clear hiking trails and brush in the offseason or fighting the blaze on the front lines during fires.

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Qualifying inmates must have no history of violent crime and be deemed a low to medium security risk. There is a two-week physical test that inmates are run through before moving on to another two weeks of fire training. After this month-long process inmates are sent out to the conservation camps that are run jointly by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation with support from Cal Fire and the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Perks to fire camp living

Incentives for program volunteers are high. Inmates are given one day off their prison sentence for every day worked on the front lines and another two days off for each day worked in the fire camps. There are no barbed wire fences or cement walls, just wooden fences that serve as a reminder of the camp border. Inmate treatment is reported by CNN as being better than in prison and space per inmate is far more than in the overcrowded prisons. Many of the inmates fighting California's wildfires have been in and out of jail their whole lives with most of them never gaining the teamwork skills, leadership, or discipline needed to enter the civilian workforce, well adjusted.

While serving time at the conservation camps, however, they are provided with a structure to learn both personal and team responsibility. Camps offer leadership roles for inmates as well as team leadership positions on the trail. For those inmates who have participated in the fire camp program, prison re-entry rate is down 10 percent compared to inmates released on regular parole.