Coronavirus Impacting California Wildfires Battle as Released Prisoners Cause Firefighter Shortage

The frame of a house still stands as it burns in front of the rising sun during the Kincad
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has seriously impacted the process for combating California wildfires by prompting the release hundreds of inmates who are part of the state’s firefighting program.

The inmates are trained to do the dangerous work of the “hand lines,” which clear vegetation to help slow or stop the fire line.

As Breitbart News reported, California prison officials said earlier this month that almost 18,000 inmates in state prisons are being released because of the coronavirus — an increase of 70 percent from earlier release estimates.

“The inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires,” Mike Hampton, a former corrections officer who worked for decades at an inmate fire camp, said in a New York Times report. “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?”

“Inmate fire crews are absolutely imperative to our ability to create hand line and do arduous work on our fires,” Brice Bennett, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said in the same Times report. “They are a tremendous resource.”

The New York Times reported on the part inmates — who wear bright orange jumpsuits to distinguish them from other firefighters — play in fighting wildfires in California, which this year includes hundreds of fires:

At Delta Camp, an inmate firefighter facility outside Vacaville, an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco, the number of incarcerated firefighters is down to 55, well below the camp’s capacity of 132. Over all, the state has the capacity to train and house about 3,400 inmate firefighters. Only 1,306 inmates are currently deployed.

The state’s main firefighting agency, Cal Fire, says it is overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the fires in Northern California, which by Saturday night had burned through nearly one million acres, forcing more than 119,000 people to evacuate and leaving at least five people dead.

The California prisons department estimates that its Conservation Camp Program, which includes the inmate firefighters, saves California taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. Hiring firefighters to replace them, especially given the difficult work involved, would challenge a state already strapped for cash.

The Times report said some other inmates liked being a part of firefighters crews because it made them feel like they were doing good. But others have criticized the practice because of the dangerous nature of the work and the low pay — about $1 or $2 an hour, according to media reports.

The country has used inmates on fire lines since World War II when American men and women were deployed overseas. Several states, including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wyoming use inmates to fight fires, but California has the largest program.

The Insider website reported on the California Governor’s response to the inmate shortage:

In response to the shortage, Governor Gavin Newsom said that California plans to put $72.4 million of emergency aid toward the hiring of 858 firefighters and six California Conservation Corps crews through October.

“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 statement in July. “We have some urgency to provide supplemental support in terms of seasonal firefighters.”

“Across the United States there have been 112,436 infections of inmates and correctional officers and 825 have been killed by the virus, according to a New York Times database,” the Times reported. “In four of the six prisons that train incarcerated firefighters, there have been more than 200 infections each among inmates and staff members.”

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