LAKE ARROWHEAD – They’ve stolen cars, used drugs and forged checks. When California is burning, they fight fires. About a quarter of the 14,000 firefighters defending homes and businesses in Southern California from wildfires this week have been prisoners, officials said. Of the 4,400 inmates trained to battle fires in the state, 3,091 were on the front lines Friday from Lake Arrowhead south to San Diego. “It’s very close to the most we’ve ever used,” said Seth Unger, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. About 3,000 inmates were used in 2003 during the Cedar Fire north of San Diego. “We have to keep some of them back. We can’t deploy every one of them.” In Lake Arrowhead, where the stubborn Slide Fire scorched has burned more than 13,000 acres and destroyed at least 200 homes, more than 220 inmate firefighters were on the lines, said Lt. William Mock, who runs Fenner Canyon, a prison inmate camp in Valyermo. They stood in line Friday evening filling their plates with turkey, peas and mashed potatoes in a makeshift kitchen in Snow Valley, a ski resort serving as a base camp. All wore orange jumpsuits marked “CDC PRISONER,” instead of the canary yellow suits worn by most fire crews. “Everybody’s just hanging in there, trying to get through this,” said Jose Robert Rosales, 23, of Norwalk. “We got axes, we got tools, we cut lines, we make sure none of the houses get burnt.” Rosales said being on the fire lines had helped him to think ahead to what he wanted to do after completing his prison sentence: get back to work at his father-in-law’s body shop. “The program has helped me a lot physically and mentally,” said Rosales, who was convicted of great bodily injury and terrorist threats four years ago. “There’s less stress, and you get to go out more and make more money, which will help me when I get out.” The work is grueling. “These guys here are working hard on 24 hour-shifts,” said Kaliko Johansen, 35, an inmate crew supervisor from Las Vegas, Nev. “It’s like working with anyone else, you’ve got good guys and bad guys out there, the majority of them just want to fight the fire,” he said. Johansen was working alongside an inmate crew using axes, shovels and chainsaws to cut a fire break in an effort to stop the advance of the fire. “Those crews are a doing a lot of the grunt work,” said Adam Shay, an engineer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “They’re gonna have some work ahead of them for a while.” At least one inmate has died in the line of duty. In July 1999, a male inmate died in Ventura County when he fell from a hillside. Some firefighters said without the help of inmates, the blazes may have caused more destruction. “I think it would be very hard without them. It would really impact us,” said Breck Wright, a state firefighter who said he has worked side by side with inmates on dozens of occasions. “They are very effective, hard-working and are well-trained. They know what they are doing.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGame Center: Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 10 a.m.Not every inmate qualifies to be a firefighter. Those who do – male or female – must be physically fit, have no history of violent crime and have four to 36 months remaining on their sentences, Unger said. Once chosen, inmates undergo a grueling, four-week program that includes training in fire safety and suppression. The program has been in existence since the 1940s and makes inmates available for other natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding. Inmates earn only $1 an hour for their work so officials estimate the savings to California taxpayers every year is about $80 million. That’s based on 3 million hours for firefighting and other emergencies, and another 7 million hours in community service. Inmates earn two days of credit for every day on the fire lines. “The program provides great benefits to both the state and the inmate,” Unger said. “The inmate not only gets to be outside, but gives back to the community, in some cases the same communities they may have victimized before.” Inmates are often sent to cut fire breaks in locations that can’t be reached by heavy machinery. They also help protect homes and businesses.