When Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature shifted responsibility for thousands of state prisoners to county jails, some authorities said it would mean more offenders on the streets breaking the law.
Few saw another possible peril: the loss of more than 1,500 inmate firefighters.
Since World War II, the state has relied on nonviolent offenders serving time for such crimes as burglary, drug possession and welfare fraud to help clear brush, cut fire lines and stop infernos from spreading.
Fire officials say the prisoners, selected from a pool of those who exhibit ideal behavior in custody, can be as much as half the manpower assigned to a large fire.
"When things get busy, it's the first thing we run out of," said Andy McMurry, deputy director of fire protection for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Now, the realignment of inmate custody, developed to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that overcrowding must be reduced in state lockups, is expected to keep thousands of those low-level offenders in county jails, where many could be released early because space is scarce.
Fire officials say they can sustain the number of inmate crews for now, but their forces will begin to shrink in 2013. The reduction, if fully implemented, would cut the inmate firefighting ranks by nearly 40%, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which operates the program jointly with Cal Fire.
State corrections and fire officials are working with local governments to head off that scenario with a separate training program for county inmates. But at a legislative hearing this month, county and local law enforcement representatives balked at the price tag — $46 per inmate per day.
Rather than stockpiling nonviolent offenders in county jails, some sheriff's departments are considering cheaper alternatives, such as releasing them with electronic monitoring.
"Some sheriffs feel they can get a better bang for their buck," Curtis Hill, a lobbyist for the California State Sheriffs' Assn., said at the hearing.
In addition, he said, some jurisdictions would rather have offenders doing manual labor than waiting around for a fire. Losing county inmates to fire crews would hurt "the capability of local communities to use that population for their own projects."
The issue is of particular concern to the Republican lawmakers who represent some of the state's most rural areas, which are more prone to wildfires.
State Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale) wondered whether there would even be enough eligible inmates left in county prisons to volunteer for fire crews.
"If our lowest-level offenders have been ankle-braceleted and are out, how do we get them to come back?" he said at the hearing.
State officials countered that nonviolent offenders would continue to receive two days off their sentences for each day spent in a fire camp.
Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Riverside) said in an interview that maintaining inmate firefighting ranks is critical to public safety. Without them, he said, large fires would be likely to burn longer, causing more damage and increasing personnel costs.
"There really are no other resources," said Jeffries, a former volunteer fire captain in Riverside County for nearly three decades. "It's boots on the ground that put fires out. If you go beyond the utilization of inmates, the price tag goes up dramatically."
Fire officials pledged to find a solution, arguing that the program's benefit is significant to both the state and the prisoners.
"For a lot of them, it's the first time they've done anything real positive in their lives," said McMurry, the Cal Fire deputy. "It's hard to put a dollar-and-cents figure on that."