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Falling rock seriously injures female inmate firefighter at Malibu brush fire

Falling rock seriously injures female inmate firefighter at Malibu brush fire
A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop on a brush fire in Malibu, where afire crew inmate battling the blazesuffered fatal injuries Thursday. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A female inmate helping to battle a Malibu wildfire was critically injured Thursday when she was struck by a large, rolling rock, according to a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The 22-year-old inmate, who was based at Malibu Conservation Camp #13, on Encinal Canyon Road, was airlifted from the scene in grave condition. She has yet to be identified publicly because prison officials are still trying to contact her family, according to Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

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"It is rare that we have an injury because the crews are under the direction of an experienced fire captain," Sessa said. "But they're in an environment where you're dealing with excessive heat, flames as tall as a building, something falls out of the trees. It can be a dangerous environment."

Los Angeles County Fire Inspector David Dantic said the woman was struck by a rock that fell roughly 100 feet. Firefighters on the scene administered CPR, and she was flown to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

A total of 63 inmates, divided into five work crews, were battling the Malibu fire, Sessa said.

The blaze broke out shortly before 3 a.m., about two miles north of Pacific Coast Highway on Mulholland Highway, according to Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Randall Wright. The wildfire scorched 10 acres of land before its spread was halted early Thursday morning. No structures were damaged, although a voluntary evacuation had been put into effect temporarily.

Although many Californians may not realize it, fire crews composed of state prisoners have been part of the state's wildfire-fighting arsenal since the late 1940s. Some inmates have committed violent felonies, but before participating, they complete a screening process to ensure they don't pose a risk of violence, according to a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

Female inmates have staffed fire lines since 1983, but in far fewer numbers than their male counterparts. Of the roughly 4,000 inmates housed in 44 conservation camps across the state, only a couple hundred are women.

The female inmate who was injured Thursday had come from the Los Angeles County jail system and had been with the Malibu conservation camp since August, Sessa said.

Typically, inmate firefighters are armed with such tools as shovels and pickaxes, and focus on fire containment lines in often rugged terrain. Inmates operate in crews of about 14 members and under the direction of a Cal Fire captain.

"They are, for all practical purposes, professional firefighters," Sessa said. "They're trained to do the work that they do."

When not fighting wildfires, inmates work on fire-prevention projects. During the winter of 2014, women at the Malibu conservation camp helped to fell and remove diseased trees that would act as fuel for wildfires.

Inmates who work in fire camps are carefully screened and evaluated to ensure they have the right temperament and attitude. Anyone with violent tendencies or attitude problems is weeded out, Sessa said.

The cause of Thursday's fire remains under investigation, according to officials. In addition to the prisoner fire crews, the blaze was battled by Los Angeles County and Ventura County firefighters.

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