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Calif. Wildfires Battle Rages On with Some Unlikely Help

May 11, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye, of KCET-TV Los Angeles, reports on the continuing efforts in Santa Barbara to bring a recent spate of wildfires under control and the lesser-known people who are helping fight that battle.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a report from Santa Barbara, Calif., on fighting the wildfires, and some of the lesser-known people involved in that. Special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye has the story.

JEFFREY KAYE: The fire-ravaged seaside community of Santa Barbara has returned to a semblance of normalcy. Even so, firefighters remained on alert today and over the weekend, concerned that hot, dry winds that pushed the blaze last week could return.

The fires destroyed or damaged about 100 homes and forced the evacuation of about 30,000 people. But over the weekend, calm winds and cool temperatures allowed firefighters to get the upper hand and most residents to return home.

In the Mission Canyon area, one of the worst-hit neighborhoods, residents whose homes had survived the inferno held reunions. Cherilyn Milton vacuumed up ashes, grateful that her home remained intact, unlike many of her neighbors’ houses.

CHERILYN MILTON: There’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and there was a big house up there, and then just on the other side of the ridge is Holly Road, and there were a lot of homes that were lost up there.

Residents praise firefighters

JEFFREY KAYE: Milton credits her fortune with good planning, cutting back vegetation, as fire officials had advised.

CHERILYN MILTON: It came right up to the bottom of the property, and I think it took a big fat jump and jumped over.

JEFFREY KAYE: Just leaped over the house?

CHERILYN MILTON: And that was our grace that we got that jump.

JEFFREY KAYE: That is amazing.

Long-time residents Jennifer Ellison and Gail Suttner, who returned to their home yesterday, went house to house checking on their neighbors and praising firefighters who came to Santa Barbara from around the west.

GAIL SUTTNER: We are just incredibly grateful. I have such admiration more than ever for the fire department. They were from all Los Angeles, all the way from there, to our local guys and gals. And they defended us. And it was really because of them that we're standing here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Around the Santa Barbara area, as grateful residents showed their appreciation for firefighters, utility crews worked to restore power and helicopters ferried water to potential hot spots.

The flames have all but disappeared, so the work over the last couple of days has been to prevent flare-ups. This is the unglamorous yet critical part of firefighting.

In the mountainous back country, hundreds of workers relying on muscle, grit and stamina cut pathways to act as fire breaks.

CAPT. DON CAMP, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: These crews are essential to the success of any incident. They are the infantry or the foot soldiers of any wildland fires. They're the ones that hike into an area and literally do hand-to-hand combat with a fire.

Prisoners work as firefighters

JEFFREY KAYE: But outside fire seasons, this largely unheralded army of workers spends most of their time indoors. They are prison inmates. This was an all-woman inmate crew. Prisoners receive special training to do this work and little pay.

YANA LUSTER: Do you really want to know how much we get paid?


YANA LUSTER: A dollar an hour.


YANA LUSTER: One dollar an hour.

JEFFREY KAYE: So you don't do it for the money?

YANA LUSTER: No, just for the giggles.

JEFFREY KAYE: But the work has other rewards.

ROSALINE SARENTE: We'd rather be here where we're free and we could see stuff and we don't have to be in prison with the barbed-wire fences and locked in all the time. You have a lot more freedom. That's why we're here, so that we can have a lot more freedom and our time could go by quickly so we could get back home to our family.

Inmate crews work long shifts

JEFFREY KAYE: In all, there are about 1,500 inmates assigned to the Santa Barbara fire. We were told not to ask the women we interviewed about their crimes, but fire officials said they are low-risk inmates convicted of drug, white-collar, and petty offenses. Some had gang affiliations.

APRIL PINEDA: I was surprised at how we all came together. I was surprised at just how strong all these women are together and how we work well as a team.

JEFFREY KAYE: To qualify to be on a fire crew, prisoners must undergo two weeks of physical training followed by another two of firefighting education.

APRIL PINEDA: We've got to work real hard to get into it, and it's beneficial, because it teaches you teamwork, builds you up. It's hard. You've got to want it to get it. But it builds up job training.

JEFFREY KAYE: A small percentage of inmates do wind up getting firefighter jobs once they're released from prison. The inmate crews spend 12- or 24-hour shifts on the lines and often camp out overnight on the perimeter of fires or burned-out areas.

Ever had any escapes?

CAPT. DON CAMP: It has occurred in the past. It's a very, very low percentage that occurs.

Reduced sentence for duty

JEFFREY KAYE: When they're transported by wagons back to base, the inmates are kept in segregated camps apart from the full-time firefighters, men separated from women.

This is, in effect, a mini-prison, but outdoors and low security. When they leave the wagons, convicts who had been supervised by fire officials revert to the custody of the state prison system and are watched over by guards.

Convicts get reduced sentences for fire duty. And unlike walled prisons where inmates are often separated by race to prevent conflicts, here at the camps, racial barriers are removed.

The inmate crews and firefighters are gradually returning home as the risk of another imminent fire in Santa Barbara diminishes, but officials here and elsewhere are also adjusting to a new reality: longer summer fire seasons.

CAPT. STEVE BERMAN, Santa Barbara Fire Department: Fire season now for us is year-round. We consider there are a high season and a low season, and we're in the low season. This was not the high season that we consider. This was not normal weather for Santa Barbara.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Santa Barbara fire burned more than 8,700 acres. Officials who have counseled homeowners to cut vegetation around their properties believe ironically that the fire might have started as a result of a spark from a power tool used to clear brush.