CALIFORNIA — During a typical fire season in California, prison inmates make up a sizable amount of the frontline responders. But as more than 360 fires now burn across the state, officials must deal with an unforeseen roadblock: the coronavirus pandemic has deeply depleted their inmate workforce.
California has used inmates to fight fires since the 1940s when World War II led to a shortage of firefighters, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
In the years since, the program has grown to include over 3,500 inmates. In their 2018-2019 report, CAL FIRE reported that inmates made up nearly a quarter of their total workforce.
But the coronavirus pandemic forced California officials to release many inmates early in order to comply with health recommendations to accommodate social distancing guidelines. CDCR estimates that nearly 8,000 prisoners will be eligible for release by the end of August.
CDCR says they will select “cohorts of inmates whose release will increase physical distancing in prisons, will protect CDCR’s most vulnerable population, and who are assessed to pose a low risk to public safety” for release.
Some of these inmates would also be eligible for the fire conservation camp program.
In order to qualify, prisoners must meet the “minimum custody” requirement before volunteering for the program.
In addition to facing lower numbers of incarcerated people, many prisons have enforced quarantine rules due to safety precautions. In June, CDCR shut down 12 fire camps after a potential exposure through the prison system, NPR reported. Several camps had the lockdowns extended through early July.
In late July, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state would be seeking additional seasonal firefighters to make up for the depleted crews.
"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 press conference at the time. “We have some urgency to provide supplemental support in terms of seasonal firefighters."
Yet as of Friday, only 90 of the usual 192 “hand crews” are available for deployment, CAL FIRE Deputy Chief Nick Schuer told The Los Angeles Times.
Earlier in the week, Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency across California, which opened the door for more federal resources to be provided.
“We are deploying every resource available to keep communities safe as California battles fires across the state during these extreme conditions,” Newsom said on Tuesday. “California and its federal and local partners are working in lockstep to meet the challenge and remain vigilant in the face of continued dangerous weather conditions.”