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Calif. to hire 850+ FFs to replace quarantined prison crews

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s plans for this year’s complicated wildfire season on Thursday


California Gov. Gavin Newsom visits the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s McClellan Reload Base in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, July 9, 2020, to discuss the state’s new efforts to protect emergency personnel and evacuees from COVID-19 during wildfires.

AP Photo/Hector Amezcua

Peter Fimrite
San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The seemingly impossible task of gearing up for fire season in the midst of a surging pandemic fell with full force on California Thursday, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to lay out the state’s battle plan.

He announced the hiring of 858 seasonal firefighters to replace prison crews whose ranks were cut in half after several of those inmates tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting a quarantine at 12 Northern California conservation camps.

Newsom said state emergency officials are working with the hotel industry to make rooms available for people displaced by fires so that fewer evacuees would be sent to shelters. Features will include socially distanced beds, temperature checks, mandatory face coverings and individually boxed meals to prevent mixing between families.

California has more resources and equipment to help strengthen fire suppression efforts this year, Newsom said. Among them are wildfire cameras, communications equipment, and Firehawk helicopters to help fight fires. The state also will add 172 full-time members to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s baseline workforce, Newsom said.

Officials, meanwhile, are reconsidering how to conduct briefings and provide meals for firefighters in order to keep the workforce safe and healthy during the pandemic.

“A lot of new protocols, a lot of new procedures are in place,” Newsom said at a news conference at McClellan Air Force Base, where he stood in front of one of the new Firehawk helicopters.

Newsom said temporary firefighters should expect to stay on the job through at least October to supplement the state corps.

The COVID-19 outbreak among prison firefighting crews comes as the state’s virus cases topped 300,000, and the average number of daily deaths is 32% higher this month than last: 85 each day in July, compared with 64 a day in June.

Statewide, California reported 8,429 cases and 135 deaths Thursday.

“For those who just think that now people are getting it and no one’s dying, that is very misleading. In fact, it’s fundamentally untrue,” Newsom said at the briefing. “California’s numbers … are a testament to that point. How deadly and devastating this disease continues to be in the state of California.”

Twenty-six of 58 California counties — including Contra Costa, Marin, Napa and Solano — are on the state’s watch list because of widespread disease or increasing hospitalizations. Sonoma County said it has been alerted that it probably will be added soon.

Contra Costa County has recorded two days of 200-plus new cases this week and has been off and on the state watch list for two weeks.

The county paused its reopening plans last week, and “at this point we don’t have any plans to loosen further,” said Dr. Ori Tzvieli, deputy public health officer for Contra Costa County. “We’re actually talking about potentially rolling back some of the things we’ve already opened.”

“I don’t see any sign of it turning around yet,” Tzvieli said. “I worry in a week or two we’ll see that translating into higher numbers of deaths as well.”

The percent of people in California who are testing positive for the virus -- a key measure of whether the state has infections under control -- also rose during the last week from a seven-day average of around 5% to around 7%. Generally, the World Health Organization recommends countries keep their rate below 5% to safely reopen economies.

Hospitalizations are also on the rise with more than 6,000 people hospitalized in the state. Just 19 days ago the state was below 3,500 hospitalized patients.

The state’s public health orders are keeping several hundred firefighters on lockdown. That deals a potentially devastating blow to the Cal Fire, which has relied on inmate crews to build fire breaks, put out embers and do a lot of the dirty work necessary to suppress deadly infernos like those that have plagued California in recent years.

“Some of the toughest, most important work in California is done by these hand crews,” Newsom said. “Because of quarantine, because of people that have been exposed or have been tested positive for COVID, we as a consequence are substantially down from where we’ve been in the past.”

California had 192 crews — each with 12 to 14 firefighters — training for this season. But just 94 crews are available, Newsom said.

In Northern California, only 30 of the 77 crews that were ready to go at the start of the season are available, said an official with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Thousands of prison inmates volunteer annually to work as hand crews during the wildfire season, clearing dry brush and building break lines in exchange for a reduction to their sentences and a few bucks a day.

The coronavirus has spread rapidly through the California prison system, infecting thousands in several lockups, including San Quentin in Marin County, where more than 1,300 inmates are infected.

As of Thursday, 1,990 low-risk prisoners had been assigned to 43 minimum security fire camps in 27 counties. There are also 121 county inmates in camps in Sierra, Riverside, San Diego, Los Angeles, Shasta, Orange, Kings, Santa Cruz, Alpine, San Joaquin and Ventura counties.

The inmate crew problem began June 21 when four inmates at the California Correctional Center in Susanville tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the corrections department to halt all movement in or out of the camp.

Investigators later determined that inmates at 12 conservation camps in Northern California had been exposed, said Aaron Francis, spokesman for the Department of Corrections firefighting program. The quarantine was implemented on June 25 and 26, he said.

“The quarantine was placed out of an abundance of caution, and (the department) expects that many of the conservation camps will return to active service by next week,” said Francis, adding that health screenings are being conducted daily. “Any incarcerated person who begins to display symptoms is transported back to (the correctional center) for housing and immediate health care screening and treatment.”

Francis said more crews will be available after the 14-day quarantine.

The number of inmate firefighters was already short, largely because the corrections department has reduced the prison population by 10,000 since March, paroling 3,500 inmates and suspending intake at county jails in response to the pandemic. It was the largest reduction in the prison population in history, officials said.

The situation is a concern because Cal Fire has already had more fires this year than in previous years. As of July 5, firefighters have battled 3,562 fires covering a total of 23,640 acres. Last year at this time Cal Fire had responded to 2,041 fires for a total of 18,564 acres. The five-year average is 2,580 fires and 51,215 acres.

The combined total of state and federal fires fought this year is 4,112 and 28,850 acres.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Erin Allday and Anna Bauman contributed to this report.


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