SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) – California’s budget-saving prison realignment program could end up costing the state a third of its firefighting crews if a deal can’t be reached to keep inmates on the fire lines.

In October, inmates from California’s 33 prisons began being remitted to county jails as part of the state’s court-mandated public safety realignment plan put into place by Governor Jerry Brown. As part of the plan, tens of thousands of lower-level criminals who otherwise would go to state prisons are instead being sentenced to county jails and rehabilitation programs.

The state currently uses about 4,000 trained state inmates to handle some of the most labor-intensive tasks involved in fighting wildfires, but according to a state officials, that number could drop dramatically as counties assume the financial burden of housing convicts.

The number of orange-suited inmates on the fire line will soon drop by more than 50 percent if counties don’t agree to send non-violent volunteers to join the crews, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Such an agreement has been stalled as officials debate how much the counties should pay to house the inmates in conservation camps, according to the report.

The inmates, who come from across the state are often the first on the scene of a major wildfire, and can be instrumental in battling remote blazes that are difficult to reach with heavy equipment.

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