SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As California enters wildfire season, the state is scrambling to find sufficient firefighters amid a coronavirus outbreak that has depleted the ranks of inmates who usually handle some of the toughest duties and caused a budget deficit that derailed plans to hire 600 new state firefighters and support personnel.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday said the state has enough money to instead add 172 professional firefighters, but he said he will use his emergency authority to beef up seasonal crews as the state enters another hot, dry summer when fires often rage out of control.
Firefighting hand crews that typically include 15-17 inmates or civilian California Conservation Corps members do what Newsom called “the really hard grunt work.” They use hand tools and chainsaws to cut and scrape road-like clearings through trees and brush in hopes of stopping the spread of wildfires.
The number of such crews is “substantially down from where we’ve been in the past,” Newsom said. Of the prison system’s 192 authorized inmate crews, just 94 are currently available.
The state shut down 12 of its 43 inmate firefighter camps last month for two-week quarantines after inmates tested positive for the virus at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, where firefighters are trained to deploy across Northern California.
That deepens a growing hole in the state’s firefighting ranks as the state releases thousands of inmates early to create space during the pandemic, officials said.
In response, Newsom announced Thursday he will use $72.4 million to hire 858 additional seasonal firefighters and field six more California Conservation Corps crews through October.
Pre-pandemic, he wanted to spend $200 million this year to hire about 500 professional firefighters and 100 support staff. But the budget Newsom signed last week includes just $85.6 million for the 172 permanent firefighting positions.
Tim Edwards, president of the union representing state firefighters, said even the 600 positions would merely have restored the state’s professional ranks to where they should be. But he called the new permanent and seasonal firefighters “a very good start.”
None of the inmate firefighters has tested positive, corrections department spokeswoman Dana Simas said, and she expects many of the camps to return to duty early next week.
In the meantime, corrections officials say they are training up to 120 inmates a month who would normally be stationed in Southern California but will now be spread statewide.
Before the pandemic, the state had already permanently lost 45 inmate crews in recent years as the state released the lower-level inmates who typically staff the program.
To address the shortage, corrections officials began allowing inmates with more serious criminal histories to serve as firefighters if they’d behaved recently. But Edwards fears those standards could slip and warned of “a big safety concern.”
State firefighters meanwhile are absorbing a 7.5% pay cut in exchange for extra days off they don’t have time to take because of the understaffing, he said, harming the morale of the nearly 6,000 full-time firefighters.
CalFire Chief Thom Porter said he doesn’t expect to field the full number of inmate crews anytime this year. But he hopes that by the height of the fall wildfire season the state can have about 155 crews operating, about the same as last year.
California is compensating in part by boosting its air power with things such as three modern Black Hawk firefighting helicopters, one of which served as a backdrop for Newsom’s news conference.
Those aircraft can quickly dump water and retardant on and around small fires to help keep them from growing out of control, he said.
“We will make it happen,” Porter said. “We have the air fleet to do so.”