As blazes spread, Covid-19 in California prisons hits crucial inmate firefighting force

Inmate firefighters prepare to put out flame on the road leading to the Reagan Presidential Library during the Easy Fire in Simi Valley, California on October 30, 2019.

Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

Deadly wildfires are still ripping through California, decimating land and homes and forcing thousands of people to evacuate. 

But first responders lack a crucial part of their emergency response team this year: prison inmate firefighters.

The coronavirus has swept through correctional facilities and infected many vulnerable California inmates, leaving fewer available to help contain more than two dozen major fires and over 300 smaller ones ripping through Northern California. 

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has roughly half as many inmate fire crews than it originally had to work during the most dangerous part of wildfire season. 

Many inmate firefighters were sent home from prison after the state granted them early release to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in crowded facilities. Others have contracted the virus and some crews are under quarantine. 

There are only 90 inmate fire crews of the 192 teams currently fighting fires and conducting mitigation efforts like removing underbrush around a fire, according to Cal Fire. More than 12,000 inmates and guards have contracted the virus this year in the state’s prisons, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  

Inmates are often on the front line doing dangerous work and making low pay, between $2 and $5 per day and $1 extra per hour when fighting a fire.

The shortage has led to Gov. Gavin Newsom calling on the state’s National Guard for help as well as additional seasonal firefighters to backfill the work done by inmates. 

“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 of inmate firefighters at a July news conference when less than half of the state’s inmate crews were available to work. 

California Department of Corrections inmates from Weott, in Humboldt County, line up as they await their deployment at the Kincade Fire Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

Jane Tyska | Getty Images

Emergency response preparation for California’s fire season was already stalled in April, when the coronavirus pandemic sickened firefighters across the country and raised fears of virus outbreaks at firefighter base camps. 

Firefighters on the front lines work and sleep in conditions that are hotbeds for virus spread. During fire outbreaks, thousands crowd into campgrounds after working long hours, where it is hard to socially distance. 

There’s little fire department leaders can do to curb virus outbreaks. Rotating out firefighters isn’t an easy option because there’s already a significant shortage of workers available. 

The state now battles rapidly spreading blazes, rolling power blackouts, a blistering heatwave and a coronavirus pandemic that is made more dangerous combined with poor air quality from the smoke.

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire, a group of fires that have affected Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties, has burned more than 215,000 acres and threatens hundreds of homes. In Santa Cruz County, the CZU Lightning Complex, another series of fires, has burned through 40,000 acres as thousands more people were ordered to evacuate.

The fire season is longer and more destructive in California and across the world as climate change drives hotter temperatures and drier conditions.

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