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Calif. may hire more than 600 firefighters after shortage at inmate camps

Less than half of the state’s inmate fire crews were available to fight record-breaking wildfires last summer

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget asks for $143 million to fund more than 600 state firefighter positions. The state faced a shortage of available inmate firefighting crews during record-breaking fires last year.

AP Photo/Noah Berger

Ryan Sabalow
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is running short of inmates who have for decades fought the state’s wildfires, as the state braces for the possibility of yet another drought and a summer of catastrophic infernos. So it may go on a firefighter hiring spree this year.

In a budget proposal, the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom is asking for $143 million to fund the full- and part-time positions of 617 state employees who would make up 30 new “hand crews” to fight wildfires. The crews use digging tools and chainsaws to cut fire breaks around communities and thin overgrown forests during the offseason.

The administration requested an additional $124 million for the program over the next five years.

“At the same time that losses from wildfires continue to set new records every year, Cal Fire has seen a decrease in the number of fire crews available to respond to these emergencies,” the proposal reads.

“Additionally, this decrease has resulted in a fewer number of crews available to perform critical fuel reduction work around communities and vegetation management projects for forest health.”

The new positions would include 16 California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection crews, and eight year-round and six seasonal California Conservation Corps crews. The Cal Fire teams would live during the fire season at seven inmate firefighting camps the state prison system recently closed, after a series of social justice reforms dramatically reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting duties.

A decade ago, the state inmate fire camp program held more than 4,200 inmates who were the state’s primary hand crews. As of last week, there were just 1,426 of inmates at the remaining “conservation camps,” a number that shrunk by 1,551 in the last year, according to state prison officials.

The shortage of inmate labor became particularly pronounced last summer during California’s worst fire season in modern history and with COVID-19 infections raging through the state prison system.

At one point early in the summer, only 30 of the state’s 77 inmate crews were available to fight wildfires because the fire camps were on lockdown from COVID. The shortage of inmate hand crews left the state scrambling to find out-of-state workers and bulldozer operators to compensate for the loss in inmate labor.

The new crews would account for a small portion of Cal Fire’s $2.9 budget request this year, and is the latest in a series of efforts to boost the massive army of workers needed to battle the state’s increasingly deadly fire seasons.

In 2019, The Legislature appropriated $315 million for new helicopters, $40 million for new fire engines and millions more for additional fire crews. In 2020, the Legislature agreed to $158 million in new staffing for Cal Fire, including permanent and temporary crews.

The state has around 6,900 firefighters at Cal Fire.

Is inmate firefighting slave labor?

Currently, there are 35 inmate fire-fighting camps scattered around the state, after eight of them closed Dec. 31. They’re often in remote areas where fires are most likely to break out. Crews sent to fight fires typically consist of up to 17 inmates overseen by a Cal Fire captain.

Identified by their red-orange fire gear, inmates use chainsaws and ho-like tools called McCleods and pickaxes called Pulaskis to cut firelines, and they help mop up after a fire is contained.

When fires aren’t burning, they are assigned forest restoration work, they fill sandbags at floods and they clean up along highways, among other duties.

For much of the last decade, state officials have been trying to reduce the size of the prison population by first diverting lower-level offenders to county custody or releasing them outright, cutting into the number of inmates eligible to be included in the fire camp system.

Last summer, the inmate fire camp population grew even smaller because of COVID-19, as Gov. Newsom began steadily shrinking the size of the prison population to reduce the spread of the disease inside the state’s prisons.

The majority of releases were of people whose terms were already ending. The prison system also suspended intake from county jails, contributing to the decreased number of people held by the state.

California’s inmate firefighting program was once widely praised for providing inmates valuable life and job skills on the fireline, but, lately, the camps have become controversial as the nation debates criminal justice reforms. Some critics call them a form of slave labor since the inmates earn just dollars a day doing the dangerous work.

Only people with less serious felony offenses are allowed to participate in the program, where they’re paid a small wage — between $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when they’re on a fire.

Supporters however, argue that many inmates would rather be working off their sentences outdoors and helping communities, instead of being locked in a cell. The inmates also earn time off their sentences, and some go on to land jobs with Cal Fire when their sentences are over.

Meanwhile, Newsom signed a bill last year, AB 2147 by Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes, D- San Bernardino, that would allow inmate firefighters to have an easier path at having their records expunged so they have better luck landing a municipal firefighting job when they’re released.

Inmates say that despite their extensive on-the-job firefighting experience they accumulated in prison, their criminal records prohibited them from getting full-time firefighting jobs at many fire agencies.


(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)