Early COVID-19 Prisoner Release Leads To Severe Wildfire Firefighter Shortage

Early COVID-19 Prisoner Release Leads To Severe Wildfire Firefighter Shortage

August 25, 2020
California Globe

On Tuesday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) announced that, due to COVID-19 prison releases, the number of inmate wildfire fighters has left the state at least 600 wildfire fighters short of where they have been at in previous years.

The wildfire fighter “hand crew” Conservation Camp program has been around in California since the 1940’s. Cal Fire has grown to be so dependent on the program that in 2019 3,500 of California’s 15,500 wildfire fighters were actually prisoners.

However, concerns of COVID-19 spreading rapidly to prisoners earlier this year led to thousands of non-violent inmates who were close to completing their sentences to be released earlyOver 10,000 inmates and those in county jails have been released early throughout the year so far due to COVID-19 concerns, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) confirming that 5,627 of them have been released early since the beginning of last month.

This has led to severely undermanned Conservation Camps and wildfire fighter units. According to Cal Fire, last year at this time 1,895 prisoner firefighters were on duty. This year the number has dipped to 1,659.

Outside of the camps the fallen prisoner wildfire fighter numbers are even more drastic. Of the 192 inmate crews that are usually fighting fires, only 90 had been available last week. While there are a few more active this week, the early release program has decimated the pool of those able to work crews by around 600 inmates so far.

Cal Fire had actually been expecting a lower number of inmate wildfire fighters this year, hiring an additional 858 seasonal firefighters this season with the approval of Governor Gavin Newsom.

“Right now we don’t have those crews and we might not. COVID might infect firefighters and hand crews and keep them out of the firefight for a quarantine period, or for longer,” explained CalFire Chief Thom Porter last month. “We are in peak fire season, and we usually see more fires around this time each year.”

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