SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California officials are considering allowing inmates with violent backgrounds to work outside prison walls fighting wildfires, and the idea is generating concerns about public safety.
The state has the nation's largest and oldest inmate firefighting unit, with about 3,800 members who provide critical assistance to professional firefighters. That's down from about 4,400 in previous years, however, and so prison officials are looking for ways to add inmates.
Now, only minimum-security inmates with no history of violent crimes can participate. Starting next year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is proposing adding inmates convicted of violent offenses such as assaults and robberies, if their security classification level has been reduced after years of good behavior.
Officials also are seeking to allow inmates who have up to seven years left on their sentences instead of the current five. Arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang affiliates and those serving life sentences for murder and other crimes would still be excluded.
"All it does is enlarge the pool of inmates we look at, but it doesn't change the nature of the inmate that we put in camp," Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa told The Associated Press. "We still are not going to put an inmate in camp that has a violent attitude."
The changes are pending final approval within the Corrections Department. They still have not been sent to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which says it also must sign off.
See photos of inmate firefighters in California:
California inmate firefighters
California may allow inmate firefighters with violent pasts
LOWER LAKE, CA - AUGUST 11: A group of inmate firefighters marches from their drop point on Morgan Valley Road to battle the Jerusalem Fire on August 11, 2015 near Lower Lake, California. The fire has consumed 16,000 acres after doubling in size overnight and is currently five percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
CLEARLAKE, CA - AUGUST 02: An inmate firefighter shields his face from smoke during a burn operation to head off the Rocky Fire on August 2, 2015 near Clearlake, California. Over 1,900 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned over 46,000 acres since it started on Wednesday afternoon. The fire is currently five percent contained and has destroyed at least 14 homes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
CLEARLAKE, CA - AUGUST 03: Inmate firefighters march along highway 20 as they conduct a backfire operation to head off the Rocky Fire on August 3, 2015 near Clearlake, California. Nearly 3,000 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned over 60,000 acres has forced the evacuation of 12,000 residents in Lake County. The fire is currently 12 percent contained and has destroyed at least 14 homes. 6,300 homes are threatened by the fast moving blaze. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
CLEARLAKE, CA - AUGUST 02: A Cal Fire firefighter leads a group of inmate firefighters during a burn operation to head off the Rocky Fire on August 2, 2015 near Clearlake, California. Over 1,900 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned over 46,000 acres since it started on Wednesday afternoon. The fire is currently five percent contained and has destroyed at least 14 homes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
CLEARLAKE, CA - AUGUST 04: Inmate firefighters hike down a hill as they mop up hot spots from the Rocky on August 4, 2015 near Clearlake, California. Nearly 3,000 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that has burned 65,000 acres has forced the evacuation of 12,000 residents in Lake County. The fire is currently 12 percent contained and has destroyed at least 14 homes. 6,300 homes are threatened by the fast moving blaze. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
WINTERS, CA - JULY 23: Inmate firefighters hike in to battle the Wragg Fire on July 23, 2015 in Winters, California. The fast moving Wragg Fire has burned more than 6,000 acres and threatens nearly 200 homes as it moves through dry brush near Lake Berryessa. Over 500 firefighters are fighting the blaze that is 15 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
LA CANADA-FLINTRIDGE, CA - FEBRUARY 6: A crew of inmate firefighters from Azusa, California digs out cars that were swept away as debris flows damaged homes after heavy rains caused mudslides on February 6, 2010 in La Canada Flintridge, California. Large wildfires in 2008 and 2009 stripped the hills and mountains of vegetation, resulting in mud and debris flow danger as winter rains pass over foothill communities where thousands of people have been evacuated at times in recent weeks. The threat is particularly high near the San Gabriel Mountains above La Canada-Flintridge area which were denuded of natural flood-controlling vegetation by the 250-plus square mile Station. At least 40 homes have been severely damaged and 500 remain evacuated. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SIERRA MADRE, CA - APRIL 28: Inmate firefighters sharpen their chain saw blades before climbing ridge in the rugged terrain rising into the San Gabriel Mountains to fight the Sierra Fire, the first big wildfire of the season, April 28, 2008 near Sierra Madre, California. Approximately 1,000 people were evacuated as the 500-acre fire began before the start of the official fire season, fueled by an early heat wave and threatening hundreds of homes near the wilderness of the Angeles National Forest. Fifty people in an outdoor wedding party were trapped overnight by the fire but not in immediate danger. No homes have been lost so far and only minor injuries have been reported among firefighters. The fire is about 23 percent contained. Full containment will likely take several more days. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
ESCONDIDO - OCTOBER 27: Firefighting prisoners with the California Corrections Center receive fresh clothes after an overnight shift at a base camp October 27, 2007 in Escondido, California. Firefighters are gaining ground on several fires around Southern California as residents return to their homes. As of Saturday, the Witch fire has burned approximately 197,990 acres and is at 60% containment. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
RAMONA, CA - OCTOBER 30: California Department of Corrections prison inmate firefighters remove burned trees from the shoulder of highway 78 October 30, 2007 in Ramona, California. Clean up continues and evacuated wildfire residents return home in certain areas as the fires come under control. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - OCTOBER 14: Inmate firefighters work in the scorched landscape next to houses that were threatened by fire on the eastern flank of the Sesnon fire, previously called the Porter Ranch fire, on October 14, 2008 in the Los Angeles area community of Porter Ranch, California. The Sesnon fire has grown to 10,000 acres since it began a day ago. The Sesnon fire and the Marek Fire, burning 15 miles to the east, together took one life and 49 structures as they raced along the northern fringes of the San Fernando Valley yesterday. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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The proposal comes at a time when the overall prison population is smaller and drought has created the potential for explosive wildfires like the ones that recently roared through the Sierra foothills and communities north of Napa, in northern California.
Mike Lopez, president of the union representing state firefighters who oversee inmates at fire scenes, supports a robust inmate program but worries about what the proposed changes could bring.
"Any acceptance of criminals with a violent background calls into question the security of our membership," he said, adding, "at what risk is CalFire willing to go to get those inmates?"
CalFire spokeswoman Janet Upton said her agency and corrections officials formed a committee this summer to consider how best to keep the firefighter program adequately staffed. She wouldn't comment on the proposed changes other than to say "nobody is interested in seeing this program go away."
The inmate firefighting program started during the civilian manpower shortage of World War II and now includes a small number of women and juvenile offenders. Volunteers must be healthy and pass a two-week physical fitness training program before they complete two weeks of classes on fighting fires.
Even using only nonviolent inmates has resulted in hundreds of assaults and batteries, along with weapons possessions, indecent exposures and other crimes among inmate firefighters in the last 10 years, according to data compiled by corrections officials and provided at the AP's request. Officials said the rate is much lower than in higher-security prisons.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, a former parole commissioner, said it is "unconscionable" to add to the risk by using inmates with a history of violence.
"They're weighing this minor good against a major bad of compromising justice and the safety of our citizens," Nielsen said.
Inmate firefighters are housed in 43 unfenced, minimum-security camps scattered across the state. They are guarded by a few correctional officers but while fighting fires are overseen only by unarmed CalFire captains who direct the inmates as they use hand tools to chew through brush and timberland to create firebreaks to stop advancing flames.
An average of nine inmates escape from the camps each year but since 2011 all but one has been recaptured.
The inmates often are used in rough, remote or environmentally sensitive terrain that is inaccessible to bulldozers. They accounted for nearly one of every five state, federal and local firefighters battling the recent Lake County and Sierra foothills fires.
The program makes inmates eligible for earlier parole, has higher pay and more relative freedom than other inmate jobs, and provides skills they can use once they are freed.
Officials are proposing loosening the rules because the number of available inmates has been shrinking since late 2011. That's when, under court order to reduce overcrowding, California began keeping thousands of lower-level offenders in county jails, leaving a higher proportion of violent and serious criminals in state prisons.
Since then, other initiatives have further reduced the number of potential firefighters.
RELATED: The most devastating wildfires from the last 100 years
Most devastating wildfires from the last 100 years
California may allow inmate firefighters with violent pasts
Cloquet Fire, Minnesota, 1918
Land destroyed: 1.2 million acres
Deaths: over 450
Hundreds of deaths due to this early 1900's fire, had townspeople creating mass graves.