A prison realignment program will send low-level offenders to county jails, depriving the state of using them to help clear brush, cut fire lines and stop infernos from spreading.

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.

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