As California's deadly wildfire season approaches, over half of the state's inmate firefighters are currently unavailable to serve the northern half of the state, after prison officials placed 12 of the state's 43 inmate fire camps on lockdown thanks to a giant COVID-19 outbreak at a Lassen County prison - which serves as the training center for the Conservation Camp Program.
Approximately 2,200 California inmates serve on the front lines of the state's increasingly frequent and destructive blazes, according to the Sacramento Bee. Overall, the program has 3,100 inmates stationed at minimum security facilities across 27 counties.
To put it in context, Cal Fire has approximately 6,500 year-round employees, which swells to around 9,000 during fire season. Inmates earn between $2 and $5 per day, plus $1 per hour while fighting a fire.
As of Friday, at least 220 inmates at Susanville prison located 120 miles north of Lake Tahoe tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks, prompting the California Department of Corrections to halt movement in and out of the prison - which includes sending inmates to the conservation camps, according to the state prison system spokesman, Aaron Francis.
Until the lockdown lifts, only 30 of the state’s 77 inmate crews are available to fight a wildfire in the north state, prison officials said.
California’s incarcerated firefighters have for decades been the state’s primary firefighting “hand crews,” and the shortage has officials scrambling to come up with replacement firefighters in a dry season that is shaping up to be among the most extreme in years. The state is hunting for bulldozer crews and enlisting teams that normally clear brush as replacements. -Sacramento Bee
That said, just one of the inmate firefighters have tested positive as of Friday, according to Francis.
The reduced manpower will create an enormous challenge for the state, should any large fires break out this year.
"To have that many (conservation camps) locked down, there are only a few camps left in the north that are going to be able to fight fires," said retired corrections officer Mike Hampton, who served as the fire camp system's union president according to the Bee. "That's going to hamper them."
"All of a sudden we start losing inmates, you can’t replace them with high-risk inmates," Hampton added. "That defeats the purpose of the program. The whole purpose of the program is to fight fires and save the state money. You put high-risk inmates in there, that defeats the safety standpoint for the citizens out there."
Identified by their orange fire uniforms, inmates typically do the critically important and dangerous job of using chainsaws and hand tools to cut firelines around properties and neighborhoods during wildfires.
Each crew has 17 inmates. They’re supervised in the field typically by a Cal Fire captain, but sometimes a correctional officer will go with them on out-of-county assignments, or on local assignments located near residential areas.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials acknowledged losing inmate hand crews to the disease outbreak is going to pose a significant challenge this summer. -Sacramento Bee
In order to cope with the shortfall, state fire officials are expanding the use of seasonal firefighters, creating new crews, and working with multiple agencies to secure more aircraft and bulldozers. Cal Fire employees have also been approved to serve on the state's "fuels crews" teams, which create fire breaks by clearing brush and other flammable materials surrounding communities, according to Amy Head, a Battalion Chief and Cal Fire spokeswoman.
State and federal officials, along with the National Guard and California Conservation Corps have all been tapped to help find more firefighters, the Bee reports.
"We're doing our best to plan ahead," said Head. "Thankfully, we haven't had anything too big to deal with yet."
Inmate shortage began years ago
The Bee also notes that the number of inmates available to fight fires has been "steadily decreasing in recent years" - as only low-level felons are eligible to participate, which state officials have been diverting to county custody or releasing them back into the public.
The department has reduced the overall population of the prison system by almost 10,000 inmates since March. The majority of releases were of people whose terms were already ending, though the state also expedited the release of 3,500 inmates who were near the end of their sentence. The prison system also has suspended intake from county jails, contributing to the decreased number of people held by the state, Francis said.
Typically, 90 inmate fire crews are available to fight fires in Northern California, but there were just 77 assigned to the region this year — and that was before the pandemic hit. -Sacramento Bee
"This is a result of natural attrition, expedited releases, and sentencing reform changes that took place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic," Francis told the Bee in an email.
Read the rest of the report here.