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For decades the California Correctional Center has been an important hub for inmate fire programs in Northern California, providing thousands of high-paying jobs in a rural and remote part of the state and offering fire training at higher elevations.

“The inmate crews are one of the largest assets Northern California has. Literally,” said Lassen County Supervisor Gary Bridges.

Last year, Bridges watched as inmate crews were deployed to help contain the North Complex Fire, which was ignited in August by a series of lightning strikes and merged with smaller fires over the course of several weeks. One of those smaller fires, the Sheep Fire, burned nearly 30,000 acres near the town of Susanville, which houses the correctional facility.

“We would have lost the whole mountain,” if the inmate crews had not been on standby, Bridges said.

Originally built in 1963, the California Correctional Center trains inmate firefighters who staff 14 firefighting camps in Northern California. The number of eligible inmates has dwindled in recent years because of changes to state law and the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted state officials to call for the early release of many nonviolent offenders.

During the height of last year’s fire season, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, which oversees the fire training programs, had roughly half the number of expected inmate fire crews after Covid-19 swept through prisons. As a result, only 90 of the 192 inmate crews were available to fight fires and conduct mitigation efforts.

In October, state officials announced the closure of eight inmate firefighting camps, four of them in Northern California, and the consolidation of inmates into 35 remaining camps. The change allowed Cal Fire and the corrections department to be “more efficient and better staffed for response to wildfires, other emergencies, and engagement in conservation-related work,” the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in an announcement.

Already faced with a dwindling federal workforce, California is preparing to shut down one of its main training facilities for inmate firefighters as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to reduce the state’s prison population.

The California Correctional Center in Lassen County, located near two national forests in the northeastern part of the state, is slated to close in June 2022 and its fire training program relocated nearly five hours south to the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.

Closing the 58-year-old prison is an extension of Newsom’s larger push to end mass incarceration, but community members and current firefighters worry that reducing the number of inmate firefighters could compromise the state’s ability to fight increasingly deadly wildfires.

“We are in desperate need of these programs,” said Brandon Dunham, a former United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management firefighter who founded and hosts a podcast for wildland firefighters called “The Anchor Point Podcast.” “We’re already short-staffed and have dismal numbers. They need us and we need them.”

Inmate firefighters typically operate in crews of around 14 people under the direction of a fire captain and often focus on reinforcing containment lines. Armed with shovels and pickaxes, they fight fires like lumberjacks: digging holes, chopping wood, clearing brush and providing essential support for state and federal firefighters.

“While these decisions are never easy, they are opening the door for the department to increase efficiencies as California continues to focus on reentry and rehabilitation efforts,” corrections department Secretary Kathleen Allison said in a statement.

As California and the West heads deeper into drought, experts predict this summer could bring another onslaught of deadly and destructive wildfires across the region. The increased danger comes at a time when federal firefighters, classified as “forestry technicians” by the Forest Service, are faced with a shrinking and exhausted workforce. Among the most skilled and experienced teams, colloquially known as hotshots, only 70 percent of crews are expected to be fully staffed this year, according to the union that represents federal firefighters.

State and municipal departments are beefing up their crews in anticipation of a heightened fire threat, and California lawmakers are scrambling to fund fire suppression and prevention efforts. Recently, Newsom proposed pouring $2 billion into the state’s fire response, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced several bills in Congress to increase preparedness.

Activists have long complained that California relies too heavily on inmate firefighters, who receive $1 an hour while fighting a fire compared to a professional firefighter, who can earn $40,000 or more in their first year. 

In 2019, California saw 252 people murdered with a knife, while 34 people were killed with some type of rifle – not necessarily an AR-15. The judge also pointed out that a Californian is three times more likely to be murdered by an attacker’s bare hands, fists or feet, than by his rifle.

“This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection. The banned ‘assault weapons’ are not bazookas, howitzers or machine guns,” Benitez said in his ruling.

“Those arms are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes. Instead, the firearms deemed ‘assault weapons’ are fairly ordinary, popular, modern.”

The judge said despite California’s ban, there currently are an estimated 185,569 “assault” weapons registered with the state – grandfathered in before California’s evolving definition of an “assault” weapon.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed by the San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee, California Gun Rights Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation and Firearms Policy Coalition that is among several by gun advocacy groups challenging California’s firearms laws.

It was filed on behalf of gun owners who want to use high-capacity magazines in their legal rifles or pistols, but said they can’t because doing so would turn them into illegal “assault” weapons under California law. Unlike military weapons, the semi-automatic rifles fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, and the plaintiffs say they are legal in 41 states.

The lawsuit said California is “one of only a small handful states to ban many of the most popular semiautomatic firearms in the nation because they possess one or more common characteristics, such as pistol grips and threaded barrels,” frequently but not exclusively along with detachable ammunition magazines.

Brandon Combs, the president of the Firearms Policy Coalition, said in a statement that the ruling “held what millions of Americans already know to be true: Bans on so-called ‘assault weapons’ are unconstitutional and cannot stand.”

Benitez was nominated by former President George W. Bush and serves in the Southern District of California. In 1989, Republican Gov.

George Deukmejian made California the first state to ban the sale of “assault” weapons, though the state law has been updated multiple times since then to expand the definition of what is considered an “assault” weapon, the Times reported.–166189822/–166189838/–166190265/–166190339/–166190357/–166189822/–166189838/–166190265/–166190339/–166190357/–166189822/–166189838/–166190265/–166190339/–166190357/

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