LOS ANGELES (CBS) — A cost-cutting move to transfer tens of thousands of state inmates to county jails could potentially cripple a key component of California’s firefighting force.

Gov. Jerry Brown hopes the plan will ultimately satisfy a U.S. Supreme Court order to slash California’s prison population by 33,000 inmates, even though the initial transfer will fall far short of that goal.

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But in doing so, the state could lose critical support for firefighters.

An estimated 4,400 state inmates are put on the front lines of wildfires each year, mostly in support roles like clearing brush and starting fire lines.

Department of Corrections spokesman Rae Stewart told KNX 1070 that if the plan goes through, they’ll try to cut deals to keep those inmates available.

“It potentially has the possibility to impact our conservation camps, as well as our other institutions,” said Stewart. “However, the department is currently looking at options to keep our workforce in the camps as it is right now.”

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California has 44 conservation camps statewide that help make up 200 fire crews, a total that Stewart said underscores the vital role of inmates in state and county firefighting efforts.

“They hike in to the fire and they actually go direct attack, to where they’ll put a fire line in to prevent the fire from possibly spreading,” said Stewart.

And that, in turn, gives prisoners a useful place in society — a goal that faces new challenges now with more budget cuts aimed squarely at the department’s rehabilitation funding.

“When they’re not fighting fires or floods, they do community service projects, conservation projects,” said Stewart.

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Most inmates earn a dollar an hour while fighting fires, and a $1.45 per day when they’re training or doing other projects.