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California Scrambled to Staff Wildfire Crews After Firefighting Prisoners Locked Down Due to COVID-19

As of early July 2020, 12 of California’s 43 prison fire camps were on lockdown due to the massive COVID-19 outbreak, including the training facility in Northern California in Lassen County. This means that only 30 of the 77 prisoner-staffed wildfire crews were available to battle these devastating blazes.

For decades, prisoner wildland firefighters have fought on the front lines as “hand crews,” using chainsaws and hand tools to cut fire lines around properties. It’s a critically important and dangerous job. Each crew has 17 prisoners trained in firefighting, led by a Cal Fire captain. There are about 2,200 prisoners certified as firefighters to work alongside Cal Fire’s 6,500 year-round employees, which swells to 9,000 during peak fire season.

But on June 23, 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) locked down all its prisons, keeping the firefighting prisoners from training for the upcoming wildfire season. While only one prisoner tested positive for COVID-19, that was enough, even though that test was confirmed to be a “false positive” just three days later, according to Aaron Francis, a CDRC spokesman.

Beyond the COVID-19 issue, the number of prisoner-firefighters has been dwindling over the last few years. Only those prisoners with less serious felony offenses are allowed to be firefighters, and the state had been diverting them to county jails or outright release. Now with COVID-19 increasing the release of around 10,000 low-level prisoners since March, there aren’t many qualified prisoners to staff the wildland fire crews. “This is a result of natural attrition, expedited releases, and sentencing reform changes that took place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Francis wrote in an email.

Mike Hampton, a retired correctional officer who has worked at the fire camps and served as the camp employees’ union president, said that “You can’t replace them with high-risk inmates.” He was talking about using other prisoners to fill the boots of the low-level firefighting prisoners. “That defeats the purpose of the program,” he said. “The whole purpose of the program is to fight fires and save the state money.”

And, indeed, the prisoners save the state a lot of money. A specially trained firefighting prisoner earns just $2.00 to $5.00 per day, plus only $1.00 an hour while fighting a fire. David Teeter, chairman of the Lassen County Board of Supervisors, cited the bigger picture. “I think it’s one of the best programs CDCR’s got going in some ways,” he said. “One of my ambitions and beliefs is you make people better — not by giving them things, but by giving them purpose.”

Meanwhile, Cal Fire has been trying to come up with ways to staff its wildfire crews without the firefighting prisoners this year. They have expanded the use of seasonal firefighters, created new crews, and worked with multiple agencies to obtain more aircraft and bulldozers. Cal Fire firefighters also have been approved to work on the teams that prisoners used to man, according to Amy Head, a Cal Fire battalion chief. The National Guard is also being sought for manpower to replace the prisoners on those crews.

Name any major wildfire in recent memory and firefighting prisoners were there. Consider the property and lives saved by those prisoners during the Thomas fires of 2017, and the Camp and Carr fires of 2018. Hopefully, the state can come up with a suitable replacement before the wildfire season gets started this fall.