Incarcerated firefighters from Oak Glen Conservation Camp clear vegetation that could fuel a wildfire near Yucaipa, California, on September 28, 2017.Photo: David McNew / AFP (Getty Images)
California’s wildland firefighting crew isn’t what it would usually be this time of year. The state depends on 2,200 incarcerated people to help work the fire line during wildfires. However, the coronavirus is ravaging through the state’s prison system. As a result, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has placed 12 of the state’s 43 fire camps on lockdown, though the department said it has confirmed no covid-19 cases among its incarcerated wildland firefighting units.
This may create another hurdle for the state to prevent and stop wildfires in a season where the pandemic is already creating other complications. To make it worse, this year is expected to be an above-average wildfire season. California is already battling wildfires, includings the 1,500-acres Crews Fire in Santa Clara County and the growing Soledad Fire in Los Angeles County. Now, the state has fewer firefighters to help contain the flames.
This, of course, comes as no surprise. Since the coronavirus first took hold in the U.S. back in March, it was clear that prisons and jails would be ground zero for the virus. Incarcerated people don’t have access to the basic sanitation amenities like hand sanitizer the rest of us can purchase or the luxury to easily social distance. And whether they do or not isn’t up to them; it’s up to whoever is running the facility they’re housed in. By June 30, the Marshall Project found that more than 52,000 incarcerated people had tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 5,000 of those cases were in California, and the state’s been seeing a spike in its prisons in the last two weeks.
This spike is behind CDCR’s move to put nearly a third of its fire camps—which can house multiple fire crews—on lockdown. The California Correctional Center, which serves as the primary training hub for incarcerated wildland firefighters in Northern California, has seen an explosion of cases in the last two weeks. Nearly all of its 227 total confirmed cases have happened in the last two weeks.
The outbreak there started on June 21 when four incarcerated people tested positive for covid-19, CDCR information officer Aaron Francis told Earther in an email. By June 23, the state halted all transfers in and out of the facility, including to state conservation camps where the incarcerated firefighters live. Through contact tracing, CDCR discovered that people living at 12 of these camps had been exposed to those who tested positive back at the California Correctional Center. That’s why these 12 camps have been on lockdown since June 25 and 26.
“The quarantine was placed out of an abundance of caution, and CDCR expects that many of the conservation camps will return to active service by next week,” Francis said.
CDCR’s wildland firefighting program has been struggling even before the pandemic. The state has tried to blame prison reform for this shortage of incarcerated firefighters, but the paltry wages of $5.12 a day aren’t all that enticing. Before these 12 camps went into quarantine, Northern California was already down 13 incarcerated fire crews to only 77 due to “natural attrition, expedited releases, and sentencing reform changes” pre-coronavirus, Francis said. By June 30, however, Northern California had access to only 30 CDCR fire crews. That’s just a third of the total crews CDCR usually has at the ready for the region that’s seen some of the state’s most explosive fires in recent years.
This is adding danger for the firefighters who are out there putting their lives on the line despite fewer colleagues to help them as well as the people who live in the path of devastating fires. But it also shows how the state is failing to adequately protect incarcerated people from this highly contagious virus who have no autonomy while behind bars to protect themselves.