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Coronavirus Pandemic Sidelines California's Inmate Firefighters

Inmate firefighters battle California's Kincade Fire on Oct. 29, 2019. In late June, officials locked down 12 inmate fire camps after outbreaks of the coronavirus within the state's prison system.
Inmate firefighters battle California's Kincade Fire on Oct. 29, 2019. In late June, officials locked down 12 inmate fire camps after outbreaks of the coronavirus within the state's prison system.

Last fall, Jason Dixon fought wildfires.

"Close enough to singe your beard hair," he said, the day after he and his team of about a dozen inmate firefighters from Valley View Correctional Facility in Glenn County battled California's wine country Kincade Fire last October. "Fighting the flames hand to hand."

That day, 37-year-old Dixon made an aggressive stand to protect a neighborhood nestled in the golden foothills of Sonoma County. But for much of this summer, Dixon has been stuck at his fire camp, one of more than 40 located in rural parts of the state.

In late June, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials put 12 prison fire camps on lockdown after they were potentially exposed to the coronavirus through outbreaks within the prison system, sidelining as many as 750 inmate firefighters.

A few weeks later, the CDCR extended the quarantine at four of the camps — Dixon's included — after he and other prisoners were potentially exposed to the virus again by a nurse team brought in to administer coronavirus tests.

"We're trying hard to get out there on the fires," Dixon said. "We're working out daily still. Training hard. But we're dealing with the coronavirus. We're getting thrown speed bumps left and right."

California has used inmate firefighters since the 1940s. People like Dixon carry heavy backpacks and perform vital but backbreaking grunt work. They use saws and axes to clear underbrush around a fire. In recent years, 3,500 of the state's 15,500 wildfire fighters were inmates, according to the state's fire agency, Cal Fire.

But this year, many inmate firefighters were sent home from prison after the state granted early release to thousands of prisoners to depopulate crowded facilities and slow the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, less than half of California's inmate firefighting crews were active for duty much of July.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state would have to hire more than 800 additional seasonal firefighters to backfill the work of the inmate fire crews.

"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," he said during a July press conference when just 94 of the state's 192 inmate crews were active. "We have some urgency to provide supplemental support in terms of seasonal firefighters."

The setbacks highlight the challenges that California and other Western states are facing heading into the most dangerous part of fire season amid the worst pandemic in more than 100 years. Even a potential exposure to the virus could sideline hundreds of firefighters for weeks.

This year, the northern part of California received only a moderate amount of winter rain, and the region faces a worse-than-average outlook for wildfires. The recent coronavirus surge across California, just as the state enters its hottest, driest and most fire-prone months, could make this current fire season especially complicatedand perilous.

Thom Porter, director of Cal Fire, the state's fire agency, said state officials are working to activate as many of "the inmate fire crew members that we possibly can," but he acknowledged that the agency doesn't "expect this season to make it to full capacity with inmate crews."

More potential lockdowns

Prison officials say Dixon and many of the inmate firefighters could be operational again as early as this week. But testing confirmed at least one prisoner and one staffer are COVID-19 positive; one fire camp will remain on extended lockdown.

"There's always the possibility that some crew somewhere is going to get quarantined," said Christine McMorrow, a spokesperson for Cal Fire.

The lockdowns come on the heels of widespread criticism of CDCR by lawmakers, inmate advocates and public health officials for the way the department has handled outbreaks at penitentiaries across the state.

The most high-profile incident was the transfer of inmates away from an outbreak at California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. That move resulted in an explosion of more than 2,000 infections at San Quentin, including at least 19 deaths.

The use of inmate firefighters in dangerous wildfires has been criticized by criminal justice advocates as well. The inmates face an uphill battle getting hired by a fire agency after they're released because of their felony records.

The pay is also very low. CDCR spokesperson Alexandra Powell told KQED that depending on their skill level, inmate firefighters earn between $2.90 and $5.12 per day. When prisoners are assigned to an active emergency, they earn an additional $1 per hour.

Sometimes the very dangerous work has cost them their lives.

Compared to a prison, Dixon said, it is easier to keep physically distanced at the camp; the number of inmate firefighters ranges from 48 to 64 people on any given day. Inmates sleep on single beds instead of bunk beds, and they have an hour or two each day in an exercise yard, where they can keep far apart from other people. Each night they can use the telephone, which is sanitized in-between calls, he said.

"We have guys that are daily cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning the dorms, disinfecting everything," he said.

During the lockdown, most people incarcerated in the camps are required to spend the bulk of the day at their bunks, and they do pushups and other exercises to stay in firefighting shape, Dixon said.

He knows it's a long shot, but he hopes to be hired to fight wildfires when he's released from prison next year.

"The best thing is the reaction of the people's face, because you run into people on the fire who live out there and they're like very thankful," he said. "It makes you feel good inside."

Copyright 2020 KQED

Kevin Stark