This summer, only 90 of the state prison’s 192 inmate fire teams are available to help clear brush and perform other important firefighting tasks, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
While a number of inmate firefighters have become infected, other crews are under quarantine orders. Some firefighters have also been released from prison in recent weeks to reduce overcrowding in prisons and fire camps.
In all, four of the six prisons that train incarcerated firefighters have had coronavirus outbreaks of more than 200 cases each, including the California Institution for Women in Corona, which trains female firefighters. That prison has had 417 cases.
The shortage has forced the state to enlist members of the National Guard and to hire civilian replacements for the inmate crews, officials said.
Members of the inmate crews — who can earn up to just over $5 a day, plus $1 an hour when fighting fires — have been stretched thin for several weeks, said Michelle Garcia, program coordinator at an inmate fire training facility center in Ventura County.
“We’re neglected and we’re overlooked,” she said.
Ms. Garcia said crew members had been drinking out of the same water spigot and that washing hands, social distancing and wearing face masks were afterthoughts.
“Once that fire call hits, it’s fire first,” she said. “Fire doesn’t care about COVID.”
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kellen Browning, Maria Cramer, Henry Fountain, Thomas Fuller, Rebecca Griesbach, Lucy Tompkins, Maura Turcotte and Alan Yuhas.