VACAVILLE, Calif. — They charge into fire zones with 60-pound packs and three-foot chain saws, felling trees and hacking through brush to make wide paths of dirt around anything worth protecting. Bright orange uniforms set them apart from other firefighters — and identify them as inmates of California’s state prisons.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Ricardo Martin, who became an inmate firefighter while serving a seven-year sentence for driving while intoxicated and injuring another motorist in a crash. “But we took special pride in being able to actually save people’s homes,” Mr. Martin said. “Everybody talked about that and how good they felt about it.”
Prisoners have helped California fight fires for decades, playing a crucial role in containing the blazes striking the state with more frequency and ferocity in recent years.
This past week, though, Mr. Martin and hundreds of other inmate firefighters were absent from the fire lines. They had already gone home, part of an early release program initiated by Gov. Gavin Newsom to protect them from the coronavirus.
That has highlighted the state’s dependence on prisoners in its firefighting force and complicated its battle against almost 600 fires, many which continued burning across Northern California on Saturday. Experts worry that dry thunderstorms forecast to begin on Sunday could wreak more havoc, further stretching the resources needed to fight what are now the second- and third-largest fires in modern state history.
To critics the prison program is a cheap and exploitative salve, one that should be replaced with proper public investment in firefighting; to others it is an essential part of the state’s response to what has become an annual wildfire crisis. Some have complained that participants were released just when the state needed them most.
“The inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires,” said Mike Hampton, a former corrections officer who worked for decades at an inmate fire camp. “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?”
Mr. Newsom’s answer is that prisoners faced another threat. Across the United States there have been 112,436 infections of inmates and correctional officers and 825 have been killed by the virus, according to a New York Times database. In four of the six prisons that train incarcerated firefighters, there have been more than 200 infections each among inmates and staff members, according to The Times.
The virus has also affected non-inmate firefighters. About 80 are currently in quarantine because of potential exposure to the coronavirus, according to the union representing firefighters.
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.
The larger debate in California is whether the state, which has the largest inmate firefighter program in the country, should be employing prisoners to fight fires in the first place. Incarcerated firefighters in California are paid $1 an hour when they are on the front lines, leading some to describe it as slave labor. They work in treacherous conditions, with six inmate firefighters dying over the past three and a half decades, including one from the state’s female contingent of incarcerated firefighters.
Already there are plans to shrink the program. Mr. Newsom’s budget, passed over the summer, calls for closing eight inmate fire camps, which the governor’s office estimates will save $7.4 million.
The union that represents Cal Fire employees has been urging the governor and the Legislature to cease relying on inmate firefighters. Tim Edwards, the president of the union, said the California prisons department had been lowering the bar for inmates who qualify for fire camp.
“They are trying to add people who would have never made it into the camps before either because of multiple offenses or the types of offense,” Mr. Edwards said.
The department of corrections says inmates must have less than five years left on their sentences and are disqualified if they have a history of escape with force or violence or if they have been convicted of sexual offenses or arson.
The system of inmate firefighters was born of necessity during World War II, when many of the state’s firefighters were shipped off as soldiers to Europe and the Pacific. Inmates were deployed to fill their places. Several states, including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wyoming, employ prisoners to fight fires, but none have as many as California.
Some Californians, including former inmate firefighters, say the program provides a sense of purpose, offering prisoners a chance to prove themselves and the satisfaction of helping others.
“It gave me a sense of direction and a sense of worth,” said Francis Lopez, who spent a year as an inmate firefighter. “There are people high-fiving you, there are big signs saying, ‘Thank you to the inmates for fighting our fires, for saving our homes.’ You see that and you think, ‘Wow, I can do good. I can be a person who is being respected.’”
Mr. Lopez, who was released three years ago and now works as a bartender in Fresno, said the incarcerated fire crews were one of the few parts of the prison system where inmates of different racial backgrounds fraternized. The food, which is prepared by the inmates, was better than in prisons, and they could spend large amounts of time outside. In the winter they worked on flood control projects.
But it is the firefighting work that was most harrowing. The scene he witnessed stepping out of the truck at his first fire is indelibly marked into his memory.
“That door pops, you get out, and there are hills all around you and everything is on fire,” he said. “There’s helicopters flying by, dropping pink retardant. There are fire trucks, hoses everywhere, and you’re hearing radio communication. It’s a very, very intense scene.”
Like the non-inmate firefighters, they work 24 hours straight, sometimes as long as 48 hours, hiking into remote, inaccessible canyons, charging up steep ridges, all the while carrying gallons of water, survival gear and their tools.
“We are the guys they send for the most dangerous missions,” Mr. Lopez said. “We are given the jobs that the machines can’t do.”
His one complaint: Inmates should be given a direct path to a firefighting job once they are released. “At least give him an interview,” he said.
Mr. Martin, the inmate firefighter released this month, said that even before the coronavirus he chose the program as a way to get an earlier parole and be reunited with his teenage son.
Finding a job with a felony conviction on his record will be challenging, said Mr. Martin, who was a police officer in Sacramento for 12 years before he was sent to prison. He is now looking into work with private fire contractors.
Mr. Martin said inmates would appreciate higher pay; when they are not fighting fires they earn between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, according to the prisons department. But what many inmates want most is freedom — an expedited release date.
“It’s dirty, hard work and after a 24-hour shift we sleep on the mountain with rattlesnakes and scorpions,” Mr. Martin said. “I don’t think anyone is there for the pay.”
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Rebecca Griesbach and Maura Turcotte contributed reporting.