As rescue crews continued their work, inmates carried a beige-colored safe on a stretcher out of an obliterated Montecito home. Large chunks of the house had already been removed. A homeowner had showed up to the leveled lot to ask firefighters about a safe that was in his attic. An inmate crew managed to find it in the debris field in good condition. The photos and documents inside were dry.
On Saturday afternoon, about 30 men wearing durable orange long-sleeve shirts and orange hardhats used chainsaws to cut through tangled tree branches. Like the firefighters, inmates said they are not used to mudslides — or to digging through debris and using chainsaws to cut tree trunks. Like the firefighters, they work 24 hours on, 24 hours off.
As of this writing, about 570 inmates are working in Montecito, out of 2,338 total personnel. A supervisor from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) oversees all inmate crews, who came from state prisons throughout the state, a public information officer said. Fire captains give them orders.
A fire captain overseeing an inmate crew on Saturday said their criminal convictions run the gamut. He asked photographers not to take pictures identifying them. He said it could be a security risk for those with gang-related charges. Also, the captain said, some victims complain should they see their perpetrator outdoors.
Asked about his crew’s performance, the fire captain said only, “They’re inmates.” As he trudged through the mud a short distance from his crew, the captain’s boots got stuck for a second in ankle-deep, soppy black mud. The inmates stopped and laughed at him. He laughed too.
Among a nearby crew, one inmate, Jeffery, said he was transported to Montecito two days ago. He is what he called the “swamper,” essentially the foreman. In the last year, Jeffery has been deployed to California wildfires so many times he has lost count. He worked on the Bear Fire in Santa Cruz and about five fires around San Luis Obispo, he said.
But this incident feels very different. “I don’t think what has happened has sunk in yet,” he said. “It is pretty unbelievable to see the devastation.”
Born and raised in Auburn, California, Jeffery said he has been the foreman for about a year. The 40-year-old is serving a six-year prison sentence for assault with a deadly weapon. “Mistakes happen,” he said. He will be out in 60 days. He is looking forward to going home to his two kids, ages 6 and 12. When he gets out, he said, he might apply to work for Cal Fire. (The Santa Barbara Independent agreed not to publish his last name.)
Jeffery described the inmate program as “positive” and “really rewarding.” “They take really good care of us while we are here,” he said. “We all get along really well … It’s always a good feeling to be a part of it.”
He expressed dismay, however, because he feels most people do not understand why inmates are brought in. “A lot of people see us as criminals,” he said. “We came out here to be good in the public’s eye.”