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Covid Limits California’s Efforts to Fight Wildfires With Prison Labor

At Delta Camp, an inmate firefighter facility outside Vacaville, an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco, the number of incarcerated firefighters is down to 55, well below the camp’s capacity of 132. Over all, the state has the capacity to train and house about 3,400 inmate firefighters. Only 1,306 inmates are currently deployed.

Men like Mr. Martin, who was released on Aug. 11, say they are grateful to be back home.

The state’s main firefighting agency, Cal Fire, says it is overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the fires in Northern California, which by Saturday afternoon had burned through nearly one million acres, forcing more than 119,000 people to evacuate and leaving at least five people dead.

Cal Fire, which has deployed 13,700 firefighters, is pleading for more personnel, especially the crews that create the so-called hand lines, the clearings crucial to stopping and slowing down wildfires. Mr. Newsom has requested more firefighters from as far away as the East Coast and Australia.

“Inmate fire crews are absolutely imperative to our ability to create hand line and do arduous work on our fires,” Brice Bennett, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said. “They are a tremendous resource.”

The coronavirus has exposed countless examples of inequality across the nation, has devastated state budgets, and has left tens of thousands of families bereft. The debate over California’s inmate firefighters shows how the pandemic’s consequences have reached deep into unexpected corners of society. In California it has been the difference between having the manpower to save homes from wildfires — or not.

The California prisons department estimates that its Conservation Camp Program, which includes the inmate firefighters, saves California taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. Hiring firefighters to replace them, especially given the difficult work involved, would challenge a state already strapped for cash.

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