California severely short on firefighting crews after COVID-19 lockdown at prison camps

As California enters another dangerous fire season following a dry winter, the COVID-19 pandemic is depleting the ranks of inmate fire crews that are a key component of the state’s efforts to battle out-of-control wildfires

This week, state prison officials announced they had placed 12 of the state’s 43 inmate fire camps on lockdown due to a massive outbreak at a Northern California prison in Lassen County that serves as the training center for fire crews.

Until the lockdown lifts, only 30 of the 77 inmate crews are available to fight a wildfire in the north state, prison officials said.

California’s incarcerated firefighters have for decades been the state’s primary firefighting “hand crews,” and the shortage has California officials scrambling to come up with replacement firefighters in a dry season that is shaping up to be among the most extreme in years. The state’s hunting for bulldozer crews and enlisting teams that normally clear brush as replacements.

Identified by their orange fire uniforms, inmates typically do the critically important and dangerous job of using chainsaws and hand tools to cut firelines around properties and neighborhoods during wildfires.

Each crew has 17 inmates. They’re supervised in the field typically by a Cal Fire captain, but sometimes a correctional officer will go with them on out-of-county assignments, or on local assignments located near residential areas.

There are about 2,200 certified inmate firefighters who do the job across the state. They’re stationed at the minimum security fire camps in 27 counties. Any loss of the crews to a COVID-19 outbreak portends a major challenge to the state’s firefighting workforce as California’s blast furnace summer and fall fire season get underway.

Cal Fire has around 6,500 year-round employees — a number that expands to around 9,000 during fire season when seasonal firefighters are hired.

“To have that many (conservation camps) locked down, there are only a few camps left in the north that are going to be able to fight fires,” said Mike Hampton, a retired corrections officer who worked at the camps and served as the fire camp system’s union president. “That’s going to hamper them.”

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials acknowledged losing inmate hand crews to the disease outbreak is going to pose a significant challenge this summer.

Inmate crews are among the first on the scene at fires large and small across the state. Name a major wildfire in recent years — from the devastating wine country and Thomas fires in 2017 to the massive Carr and Camp fires the following year — and inmates were there, on the ground cutting fire breaks around evacuated homes.

State fire officials are currently working on finding more bulldozers and creating new hand crews using seasonal firefighters to do the work the inmates once did. The state also has approved using Cal Fire employees on the state’s “fuels crews” — teams who clear brush and trees to create fire breaks around communities — for “initial attack fire activity,” said Battalion Chief Amy Head, a Cal Fire spokeswoman.

The state also wants to secure more firefighting aircraft, and is working with state and federal governments, the National Guard and the California Conservation Corps to find more firefighters to replace the shrinking ranks of inmate crews.

“We’re doing our best to plan ahead,” Head said. “Thankfully, we haven’t had anything too big to deal with yet.”

Lassen County outbreak depletes crews

On June 21, inmates housed at California Correctional Center tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation suspended all movement in and out of the prison, including sending inmates to the conservation camps where inmate firefighters are based, said Aaron Francis, a spokesman for the state prison system.

As of Friday, at least 220 inmates at the Susanville prison have tested positive for the disease in the past 14 days, according to the state’s online testing dashboard.

A dozen conservation camps in Northern California were placed on mandatory quarantine after prison health officials determined that inmates were exposed to the virus at the prison before being transferred out to the camps, Francis said. The locked-down inmate firefighters are now receiving daily health screenings, Francis said.

He said that as of Friday only one inmate firefighter had tested positive.

The numbers of inmates eligible to work at the camps has been steadily decreasing in recent years. 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.

But, 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.

That trend has increased during COVID-19 crisis.

The department has reduced the overall population of the prison system by almost 10,000 inmates since March. The majority of releases were of people whose terms were already ending, though the state also expedited the release of 3,500 inmates who were near the end of their sentence. The prison system also has suspended intake from county jails, contributing to the decreased number of people held by the state, Francis said.

Typically, 90 inmate fire crews are available to fight fires in Northern California, but there were just 77 assigned to the region this year — and that was before the pandemic hit.

“This is a result of natural attrition, expedited releases, and sentencing reform changes that took place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Francis said in an email.

Now, due to the lockdown at the 12 fire camps, only 30 inmate crews are available in Northern California to respond to a wildfire, as of June 30, Francis said.

Are more dangerous inmates being placed in camps?

Prison officials have said their screening process ensures fire camp inmates aren’t dangerous, escapes are rare and inmates learn valuable life skills in the fire camps that help them transition back to society, a critical component of California’s efforts to reform its prison system.

“I think it’s one of the best programs CDCR’s got going in some ways,” said David Teeter, chairman of the Lassen County Board of Supervisors. “One of my missions and beliefs is you make people better — not by giving them things — but by giving them purpose.”

But Hampton, the former correctional officer and union official, has long been a critic of the state placing potentially dangerous people in the minimum-security camps as officials reduce the state’s prison population. He said the COVID-19 crisis has certainly made the problem worse.

“All of the sudden we start losing inmates, you can’t replace them with high-risk inmates,” he said. “That defeats the purpose of the program. The whole purpose of the program is to fight fires and save the state money. You put high-risk inmates in there, that defeats the safety standpoint for the citizens out there.”

There have been a couple of high-profile cases of dangerous inmates escaping the state’s fire camps, long before the state made its push to reduce its population and years prior to the pandemic.

In 2005, Marlon Ruff, 33, walked away from Eel River Conservation Camp in Humboldt County. Ruff had been convicted of beating and robbing an armored car guard.

He later shot and killed San Francisco police officer Bryan Tuvera, in a South San Francisco garage, before shooting and killing himself as Tuvera’s backup arrived.

Then in July 2010, Jeffory Lynn Shook, 36, walked away from Washington Ridge Conservation Camp in Nevada County. He led law enforcement officers on a chase across four counties before SWAT teams said they captured him holed up with some Aryan Brotherhood gang members he’d met in prison at a trailer park in rural Siskiyou County.

At the time of his arrest for trying to run down a detective, former Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner called Shook “one of the most violent and dangerous suspects we’ve encountered in a long time.”

Police shot and wounded Shook during that encounter. He’d also been shot during an earlier arrest in Orange County, investigators said.

The Ruff and Shook cases shocked experts who said inmates that violent should never have been put in a minimum security facility in the first place.

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