Environment & Energy Report

California Inmate Fire Crews Hit by Virus as Season Heats Up (2)

July 9, 2020, 8:00 PMUpdated: July 9, 2020, 11:16 PM

Less than half of the inmate crews that California relies on to fight wildfires across the state are available for deployment due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday.

Newsom (D) said 94 of 192 crews from the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) can respond to fires. He said he had ordered the state fire agency to supplement those crews with an additional 858 seasonal firefighters through October.

“We are trying to be as prepared and vigilant as possible,” he said during a noon briefing with reporters.

Corrections inmates have worked fire lines for decades. CDCR, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), and the Los Angeles County Fire Department jointly operate 43 fire camps in 27 counties to support state, local, and federal agencies during disasters.

“I don’t expect this season to make it to full capacity with inmate crews,” CalFire Director Thom Porter said.

In late June, CDCR suspended movement in and out of one fire training hub after Covid-19 cases were detected in prisoners. Based on contact tracing, 12 camps were placed on mandatory 14-day quarantines.

There are currently no confirmed Covid-19 cases at the camps, and the quarantine is expected to be lifted early next week so the crews can return to active status, Aaron Francis, a Corrections spokesman, said in an email.

Surge in Covid Cases

Cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, have been surging in the state. California on Wednesday reported 114 deaths and an additional 11,694 cases, the biggest one-day increase, though some could be due to a reporting backlog.

Last week, California had 628 fires. Since Jan. 1, there have been 4,112 fires.

The number of wildfires has increased, and although the fires have been small, the season is getting more serious. “This is the time of year fires start to get bigger and harder to control,” Porter said. “We need a continued vigilance.”

Coronavirus adds complexity in terms of fighting fires and handling evacuees, Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci said.

Boxed Meals, Temperature Checks

Firefighters may be assigned to “family” crews that work, travel, and eat together. There will be no more buffets, but instead individually boxed meals.

Mandatory masks, temperature checks, social distancing, enhanced medical services, and ready-to-eat meals will used be at initial community shelters for evacuees.

The state is also considering using hotels, college dormitories, campgrounds, and Airbnb rentals to house evacuees so they don’t congregate with strangers at shelters.

Evacuation requests may also come earlier to handle additional logistics needs. “If you’re told to evacuate, evacuate,” Ghilarducci said. “Do not wait.”

(Update to include additional information on the fire crews. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at edooley@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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