Cal Fire Says They Couldn't Hire Inmates to Fight Fires As Applications Had Closed

As California fires continue to rage across the state, firefighting efforts have been hampered by crew shortages amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

These shortages have been exacerbated by the recent early release of thousands of inmates due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of whom have been trained under the state's Conservation Camp Program, which helps government agencies respond to emergencies such as fires and other disasters.

"All inmates receive the same entry-level training that Cal Fire's seasonal firefighters receive in addition to ongoing training from Cal Fire throughout the time they are in the program," according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Since July 1, the department was reported to have released 5,727 inmates, which reportedly included inmates from the Conservation Camp Program who could potentially work as inmate crew members for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which is responsible for fighting fires in over 96 million acres of California's nearly 101.7 million total acres of land.

Despite the urgency of the ongoing fires, the hiring period for fire crew was said to be closed for the season, Tim Edwards, the president of Cal Fire Local 2881, Cal Fire's firefighters union, told Newsweek.

"We only have inmate crews as part of the program with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). If a released inmate wants to apply, they must go through all the steps and meet all minimum requirements needed.

"Everyone interested in working for Cal Fire must apply and go through the same process. The window of time to hire firefighters is closed for the season," he added.

Cal Fire's inmate crews, who operate line construction around fires to contain them, were reported to have nearly halved from 99 to 45 crews (each inmate crew consists of 15 to 17 people), while nearly 150 firefighters from Cal Fire are currently in quarantine due to coronavirus infection or exposure, Edwards told Newsweek.

Over 1,300 inmates in California were reported to be battling 19 fires across the state, including the large lightning complex fires in the Bay Area, as of August 20. The recent early release reportedly saw at least 700 inmates sent home from the fire camps, including 331 firefighters and those in other support roles, San Francisco's KQED radio station reported Monday.

Inmate firefighters form "an integral part of our firefighting operations," Cal Fire Resource Management Communications Officer, Christine McMorrow, told CNN.

"This [the early release of inmates] leaves us with less hand crews for firefighting efforts," McMorrow added.

Nearly 3,100 inmates are currently reported to be working at fire camps and around 2,200 of those are "fire line-qualified inmates," according to the CDCR.

Speaking to Newsweek, a spokesperson for the CDCR said: "The health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff continues to be our top priority. We continue to work with our partners during this pandemic to balance that priority with being able to provide assistance to California's wildfire prevention and response efforts.

"CDCR has detailed physical and commitment offense requirements for the Conservation Camp Program. We will continue to support Cal Fire efforts with those who meet the requirements and volunteer for the positive rehabilitative program."

The CDCR confirmed it "suspended movement at the CCC [California Conservation Camp Program] when positive cases were returned at the institution."

The department "continued to support Cal Fire with resources from SCC, our Southern California camp pipeline. SCC continued to train incarcerated firefighters in order to provide needed support," the CDCR spokesperson said.

Last month, the CDCR estimated that up to 8,000 inmates could be eligible for early release by the end of August. "CDCR's previous pandemic emergency decompression efforts have reduced inmate populations systemwide by approximately 10,000, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission within its facilities," CDCR confirmed in a statement.

The CDCR spokesperson told Newsweek: "Many former incarcerated firefighters from the state's Conservation Camp Program go on to gain employment with Cal Fire, the United States Forest Service and interagency hotshot crews.

"In effort to expand employment opportunities for inmates paroling from fire camps, the CDCR, Cal Fire and the California Conservation Corps partnered to implement a Firefighter Training and Certification Program in Ventura County in October 2018. Members of the California Conservation Corps are also eligible to participate," the spokesperson added.

Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state plans to hire 858 more firefighters and six California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews through October in view of the ongoing pandemic.

"California is better prepared against the threat of wildfire today than at any time in our history. Even in a challenging budget climate, we have undertaken major action and made significant investments to fortify our state and help fight increasingly severe wildfires," Newsom stated at the time.

LNU Lightning Complex Fire California August 2020
Firefighters advance a hose towards a burning structure as the LNU Lightning Complex Fire burns through the area on August 18, 2020 in Napa, California. Getty Images

Newsweek has contacted the offices for Gov. Newsom, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Napa County, Sonoma County, Santa Cruz County, as well as Cal Fire for further comment.

Nearly 16,000 firefighters continue to battle more than 700 wildfires in California. The fires have burned over 1.35 million acres of the state since August 15, the Cal Fire confirmed Thursday.

Over 50,000 people were allowed to return to their homes, including in parts of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties where evacuation orders were lifted for more than 20,000 residents in the past 24 hours.

Update 9/1/20: This article has been updated with comment from the CDCR.

Cal Fire Says They Couldn't Hire Inmates to Fight Fires As Applications Had Closed | News