California first responders are wrestling massive wildfires plaguing the state but an integral part of their team is missing in action because of the coronavirus pandemic.
There are significantly fewer inmate firefighting crews helping right now due to the state prison system’s early release program, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
Earlier last month, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced its decision to release as many as 17,600 inmates early to protect the prison population and staff from the pandemic.
This included inmates participating in the state’s Conservation Camp Program, which supports state, local and federal government agencies as they respond to emergencies such as fires, floods, and other natural or man-made disasters.
600 fewer inmates fighting wildfires
A total of 5,627 inmates have been released early since July 1, according to the CDCR. The early releases have meant there are 600 fewer inmate firefighters available this fire season compared to last year.
Inmate firefighters “are an integral part of our firefighting operations,” Cal Fire Resource Management Communications Officer Christine McMorrow said.
Inmate crews are assigned to a wide range of duties. When not assigned to fires, inmate crews work on fuel reduction projects near their camp location. During fires, inmate crews are assigned to initial attack, fire line creation, and mop up’s to make a fire safe or reduce residual smoke after the fire is controlled, according to the USDA Forest Service. With 12 to 17 inmates in each crew, inmate firefighters work as “hand crews” who use hand tools like shovels, rakes, and axes to construct the fire line.
With inmates being released early, “this leaves us with less hand crews for firefighting efforts,” McMorrow said.
There are currently 102 inmate crews, or 1,306 incarcerated individuals, deployed to 19 fires, according to McMorrow.
In August 2019, there were nearly 3,000 incarcerated people housed in conservation camps — 1,895 of which were incarcerated firefighters, CDCR PIO Aaron Francis said. This year, there are 2,028 incarcerated people housed in conservation camps — 1,659 of which are incarcerated firefighters.
CDCR, Cal Fire, and the Los Angeles County Fire Department jointly operates 43 conservation camps in 27 counties. Through the Conservation Camp Program, inmates with “minimum custody” status can volunteer for the fire camp program and work as firefighters, according to CDCR’s website.
The average compensation for an inmate firefighter is $3.63 per day and they earn an additional $1.00 per day when deployed to an active fire, McMorrow said.
Despite their extensive training and heroic efforts in times of crisis, these same inmates are often denied roles in fire departments after they’re released because of their felony records.
“These inmates go through the training and then they want to go on and pursue additional training and that door is closed to them,” according to Mark Farouk, a spokesman for California Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, who introduced a bill last year that seeks to ease restrictions on ex-convicts.
Currently, most fire departments require candidates to have an EMT license, which Farouk says is extremely difficult to acquire with a felony conviction. Reyes’ bill aims to provide a path for former inmates to become professional firefighters after their release.
100% of the state’s firefighting resources have been deployed
Right now 96% of Cal Fire engines are committed or responding to wildfires, McMorrow said. “We are experiencing an unprecedented fire siege that is stretching all firefighting resources.”
At least 13,000 firefighters are battling hundreds of major wildfires that have scorched more than 1 million acres across the state.
Two fires — the 350,030-acre LNU Lightning Complex Fire in the northern Bay Area and Central Valley, and the 347,196-acre SCU Lightning Complex Fire largely east of San Jose — are among the state’s three largest wildfires in recorded history.
In a press conference Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom emphasized that 100% of the state’s firefighting resources have been deployed to fight the lightning-sparked blazes.
Under Newsom’s authorization, Cal Fire has hired an additional 858 seasonal firefighters this season. Out of the 345 engines requested, 45 have arrived, according to Cal Fire.
California has requested firefighting support from neighboring states, including Nevada, Texas, and Arizona.