For well over a week, hundreds of inmates have chain-sawed through relentless thickets of chaparral, cutting lines through the backcountry to thwart the fire's sudden rushes at homes.
On Thursday, they were deep in the Los Padres National Forest, covered in wood grit, soot and sweat, as the Thomas fire continued to grow — becoming the fourth-largest in modern California history.
Playing some of the hardest roles are the inmate hand crews, which make up about 20% of the firefighters here.
Established in 1943, the inmate fire program employs roughly 3,800 prisoners across California, paying them $2 a day in the off-season — when they clear flood control channels and hiking trails — and $1 an hour when they're fighting fires.
"I've always been a fan of the program," said Mark Brown, a deputy fire chief in Marin County and operations commander on the Thomas fire. "They work their butts off."
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