Inmates Play Major Role In Fighting Southern California Wildfires

They may have stolen cars, used drugs or forged checks, but when the state is burning, they fight fires.

Of the 14,000 firefighters defending homes and businesses in Southern California from wildfires this week, about a quarter of them have been prison inmates.

Officials say 4,400 inmates are trained to battle fires in the state and more than 3,000 were on the front lines yesterday.

A spokesman for the corrections department says it's close to the most the state has ever used.

The inmates go through a four-week training program.

They must be physically fit, have no history of violent crime and have
between four months to three years remaining on their sentences.

They're paid $1 an hour.

The program started in the 1940s and also makes inmates available for other natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding.

Also, tens of thousands of people displaced by Southern California wildfires are returning home this weekend but the danger is far from over.

While many fires are under control, at least five major blazes in three counties are threatening hundreds of homes.

Among them are dozens of homes in Silverado Canyon, a scenic area of Orange County.

In San Diego County, only two fires are more than 50 percent contained.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will be in Orange County this morning to meet with firefighters and to warn fire victims about possible scams as they try to rebuild.

A week of fires has destroyed at least 1,700 homes and killed as many as seven people.

Firefighters will have some help from the weather, though.

Winds are expected to be calm today.

Meanwhile, officials have asked the public to help find the arsonist who set the Orange County fire.

Officials released a description of a white pickup truck spotted in the area where the Santiago Canyon fire began.

Authorities want to talk to the driver, although they're not calling that person a suspect.