2013 Black Forest fire, Colorado. US Air Force photo.

In another confluence of horribles for this weirdest year since the last four weirdest years, the nation-state of California has started wildfire season with a bang — and with a shortage of wildland firefighters, thanks to a major COVID-19 outbreak at a prison. Much of the hands-on work of fighting wildfires is done by prison inmates, but a dozen of the state's 43 prison fire camps are currently under quarantine, leaving only 30 fire crews available out of the 77 crews this year, the Sacramento Bee reports. That comes as California saw about 11,000 lighting strikes in the past 72 hours, which sparked fires all over the state. Fire officials say there are currently 367 wildfires in California, 26 of them classified as "major blazes."

This might be a good place to mention that prison labor remains the last legal form of involuntary servitude in the USA.


Inmate firefighters have long been the primary source of "hand crews" in California and other western states. They

typically do the critically important and dangerous job of using chainsaws and hand tools to cut firelines around properties and neighborhoods during wildfires.

Each crew has 17 inmates. They're supervised in the field typically by a Cal Fire captain, but sometimes a correctional officer will go with them on out-of-county assignments, or on local assignments located near residential areas.

The current shortage stems from a COVID-19 outbreak at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, which apparently began when infected inmates were transferred from San Quentin in June. (The San Quentin outbreak, which has killed more than 20 prisoners, started in May, and also appears to have resulted from transfers of prisoners.) At least 220 prisoners at the Susanville prison have tested positive, but some prisoners transferred to fire camps before the prison was shut down. Now all 12 fire camps with inmates from that prison are in quarantine, with daily health screenings for all of the locked-down firefighters getting daily health screenings.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that so far only one of the inmate firefighters had tested positive, and a subsequent test came back negative, so the "medical staff determined that the first test was the result of a false positive."

While the fire camps are in lockdown, California is trying to get firefighters and equipment wherever it can, moving around crews that are normally assigned to removing brush to prevent fires and hiring seasonal firefighters, according to Battalion Chief Amy Head, a Cal Fire spokesperson. The state is also trying to

secure more firefighting aircraft, and is working with state and federal governments, the National Guard and the California Conservation Corps to find more firefighters to replace the shrinking ranks of inmate crews.

"We're doing our best to plan ahead," Head said. "Thankfully, we haven't had anything too big to deal with yet."

Federal government you say? Well then, we can only assume it won't be long before there's a massive fire that will prompt Donald Trump to threaten he'll withhold federal help and say something stupid about environmentalists wasting all the water by protecting endangered fish. If only California had given more prisoners rakes!

The Bee article also notes that, even before the outbreak at the Susanville prison, the number of inmate firefighters "has been steadily decreasing in recent years," because the population of available slave prison laborers is simply shrinking:

Only people with less serious felony offenses are allowed to participate in the program, where they're paid a small wage — between $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when they're on a fire.

But, for much of the last decade, state officials have been trying to reduce the size of the prison population by first diverting lower-level offenders to county custody or releasing them outright.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that trend, as nearly 10,000 inmates, mostly those at or near the end of their sentences, were released. That's part of the reason that instead of the usual 90 inmate fire crews, this year the state only had 77 available before the quarantine. (And yes, officials who run the program argue that being on the firefighting crews helps prepare inmates for firefighting jobs after prison.)

Mike Hampton, a former corrections officer "who worked at the camps and served as the fire camp system's union president," weighed in with a summary of the state's dilemma that we think may be missing something:

"All of a sudden we start losing inmates, you can't replace them with high-risk inmates," he said. "That defeats the purpose of the program. The whole purpose of the program is to fight fires and save the state money. You put high-risk inmates in there, that defeats the safety standpoint for the citizens out there."

Maybe the solution might involve, we dunno, budgeting money to actually hire seasonal firefighters who aren't being paid five dollars a day? Hell, fighting wildfires seems likely to be a climate change growth industry, so maybe that's something the federal government might include in a Green New Deal?

Nahh, that'd be socialism, never mind.

[Sacramento Bee / Atlantic / CNN / Photo: Black Forest Fire, Colorado, 2013. US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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