California is facing a wildfire fighter shortage because prisoners are getting sick with COVID

July 15, 2020, 8:58 PM UTC

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California is burning and the prison inmates that the state depends on to work fire lines in exchange for commuted sentences and minimal wages are largely incapacitated due to COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the state’s prison system. 

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to nearly 4,000 wildfires ravaging 34,000 acres in the first seven months of 2020, up from 2,800 over the same period a year ago. To help fight these fires, the state typically depends on about 2,200 incarcerated people to work the frontlines, but state prison officials have announced that at least 30 of the state’s 77 inmate crews are now under lockdown due to outbreaks of the coronavirus in their camps.

The camps will be closed until there are no COVID-19 cases among those living there, said officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). 

The news comes as cases of the virus surge all over California, especially in prison systems where inmates report a lack of access to basic sanitation products like hand sanitizer or the ability to social distance. CDCR currently has over 6,600 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The California Correctional Center, which is the primary training hub for incarcerated wildland firefighters, has seen the second largest spike in cases with 216 in the last two weeks. 

California governor Gavin Newsom also noted that a decrease in prison population in total has severely limited firecrews. Even before the virus spread, 13 crews had been lost due to “natural attrition, expedited releases, and sentencing reform changes,” said CDCR information officer Aaron Francis. The state has released about 10,000 inmates early to avoid crowding because of the pandemic, and another 8,000 could be released by August. 

The state of California has so far added 900 new firefighters to its crews to make up for the loss of inmates

The cost of maintaining safety and homes as the numbers of fires increase remains unsustainable, at an estimated $80 billion in damage to the economy in 2019. California, meanwhile, has entered a “budget emergency” due to the decline in revenue and increase in coronavirus-related costs. The state’s budget went from an anticipated $6 billion surplus in January to an estimated $54.3 billion deficit due to the pandemic. 

Inmates typically fight fires for wages between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, plus an additional $1 per hour during active emergencies for their potentially life-threatening efforts. The firefighters they work alongside earn an average of $91,000 each year before overtime pay and bonuses. Cal Fire has around 6,500 year-round employees, and around 9,000 during fire season. Inmates, which make up “hand crews” represent a very significant portion of that staff.

The Conservation Camp Program, officially established in 1945, is estimated to save California taxpayers about $100 million each year. 

In order to help bridge the deficit the state dipped into emergency funds, which have already been decimated by the rising costs of fighting wildfires each year. No longer is there a predictable wildfire season in the state, California has 78 more annual “fire days” now than it had 50 years ago. 

During active fires, inmates earn about $27 each day, much better than other prison jobs that would earn them $0.08 to $0.37 per hour. They also have fresher food, more freedom and, perhaps most importantly, receive two days off their prison sentence for every one day served (commonly known as 2-for-1). 

California officials have in the past blamed prison reform for dwindling numbers of inmate firefighters, and in 2014, California fought court orders to apply 2-for-1 release credits to other rehabilitation work programs. They argued that no one would want to join the fire camp if they could get the same perks doing other, low risk jobs.

Over the past 35 years, six incarcerated firefighters have died as a result of injuries sustained while actively working on containing a fire, according to Alexandra Powell, public information officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But injuries abound.

More than 1,000 inmate firefighters were sent to the hospital between 2013 and 2018, according to data obtained by TIME. Incarcerated firefighters were four times more likely to suffer from object-related injuries like cuts and broken bones than other firefighters and eight times more likely to suffer from smoke and particulate inhalation than other firefighters. 

The prisoners who work at fire camps often find that they’re unable to put their skills to use when they’re released. The majority of firefighting jobs in the U.S., and most of the 900 fire departments in California, require employees to obtain an Emergency Medical Technician or paramedic license. In California, the majority of convicted felons can’t obtain those licenses until they’ve been out of prison for 10 years.

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