California normally relies on thousands of prisoners to put out wildfires. The inmates are drawn from 43 “conservation camps” that house people considered low risk to the public. But that workforce has been seriously depleted this year as 12 of the 43 camps are in lockdown due to the coronavirus, and some prisoners have been released following changes in California law.
“It's unfortunate that we don't have the bodies, because we're losing the inmate fire crews,” said Mike Hampton, a retired conservation camp guard who provided firefighting training. “The state of California is going to have to come in to take the place of the inmates, and it's going to be a huge cost burden. The biggest challenge, the biggest hurdle right now is there's just not enough qualified inmates to fight fires.”
Criminal justice expert Billie Mizell says the authorities have no choice but to cut the prison population. “Generally, for all incarcerated people, the conditions have gone from bad to worse during this pandemic,” she says. “Many of the institutions went on a complete lockdown. No family visits have been allowed. The hygiene supplies have been very limited. So the toll that this takes on somebody's mental health, you can imagine. Public health officials are saying there needs to be a 50% reduction in our incarcerated population.”
The current fires are beginning to wind down, but the state is already bracing for the next ones. Climate change means the wildfires are getting more frequent and more powerful. Jeremy Rahn of Cal Fire, the state agency tasked with managing wildfire response, says California will burn again—and not just during the hottest months.
“A lot of times they would call it fire season. And over the years it's become more of a fire year because of different weather patterns.”
So California may be forced to hire and train significantly more professional firefighters, and that could stretch the state budget — already under strain from the coronavirus — to the breaking point.