California Relies On Inmates To Fight Wildfires. COVID-19 Has Led To A Shortage.

Thousands of inmates have been granted early release to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has left fire camps without enough laborers to extinguish the hundreds of blazes.

A firefighter tries to put out the wildfire on August 19, 2020 in San Mateo, California. | Getty Images
A firefighter tries to put out the wildfire on August 19, 2020 in San Mateo, California. | Getty Images

California is currently battling more than 350 fires — but the COVID-19 outbreak has led to a shortage of inmate firefighters, whom the state typically depends on to help control the blazes.

The state has looked to inmate firefighters for labor since the 1940s, when World War II left the state’s forestry camps with a shortage of workers. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the number of inmate firefighters in recent years has grown to 3,500, which is nearly one quarter of the state's 15,500 wildfire fighters.

But this year, thousands of inmates were granted early release from prisons, which have been hotspots for the spread of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. As a result, fewer incarcerated people have been available to serve at the fire camps. NPR also reported that many fire camps served by inmates were put on lockdown in June and July, after workers were potentially exposed to the virus.

According to a Los Angeles Times report, Nick Schuler, a Cal Fire deputy chief, said that 90 of the 192 inmate fire crews were available to fight the wildfires as of Friday.

To aid in the shortage, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced in early July that the state would hire 858 more firefighters and six California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews through October. The CCC crews are trained to respond to natural and human-made disasters.

“Some of the toughest work that’s done out there on the lines, some of the most important work, is done by these hand crews,” Newsom said at a July news conference.

Many online have also pointed out that incarcerated people, despite the dangerous labor they fulfill, are paid dollars a day, and many can’t easily continue the work after they complete their sentence because of their criminal record.