The reduction of inmates available to serve in hand crews due to early release because of the coronavirus leaves Cal Fire vulnerable to deal with the extreme conditions with a limited number of inmate fire crews to draw from.
"Some of the toughest work that's done out there on the lines, some of the most important work, is done by these hand crews," Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement in July.
As more than 360 fires burn across the state of California, the coronavirus pandemic is creating a shortage of inmate fire crews to battle the wildfires.
California has relied on incarcerated firefighters as its primary "hand crews" since the 1940s, and in the past few years, the number of inmate firefighters has grown to 3,500, nearly a fourth of the state's 15,500 wildfire fighters, according to Cal Fire, the department overseeing the state's forestry and fire protection.
The reduction of inmates available to serve in hand crews due to early release because of the coronavirus leaves Cal Fire vulnerable to deal with the extreme conditions with a limited number of inmate fire crews to draw from. And the intensity of the wildfires combined with the public health fallout from the pandemic has put a strain on resources for California to address the extreme fires.
Nick Schuler, a deputy chief with Cal Fire, said that 90 of the 192 inmate fire crews were available to fight the wildfires as of Friday, the Los Angeles Times reports.
In response to the shortage, Governor Gavin Newsom said that California plans to put $72.4 million of emergency aid toward the hiring of 858 firefighters and six California Conservation Corps crews through October.
"Some of the toughest work that's done out there on the lines, some of the most important work, is done by these hand crews," Newsom said in a statement in July. "We have some urgency to provide supplemental support in terms of seasonal firefighters."
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, about 2,200 inmate firefighters are used to fight wildfires across the state. Inmate firefighters do the hazardous work of cutting firelines, a gap in vegetation that serves as a barrier to slow the spread of fires.
Inmates who participate in fire crews are required to go through the same training as the state's seasonal firefighter employees and often must work on the front lines of the fires. However, people on the inmate fire crews are paid between $2 and $5 a day, with an additional $1 per hour when they are on a fire, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Inmate fire crews are often the first line of defense against wildfires and with their shortage, state fire officials are working on finding new hand crews to fill their place, according to the Sacramento Bee.
While inmate fire crews are an essential part of Cal Fire operations, the number of inmates eligible to work at the camps has been decreasing, and state officials have been reducing the size of prison populations in recent months as a response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Correction 08/20/2020: An earlier version of this story included outdated information: There are currently "no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state's Conservation Camp Program and there are no conservation camps on quarantine," according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. We regret the error.
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