Earlier this week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced that 8 of it’s 43 prisoner wildfire camps, known as Conservation Camps, will be closing at the end of the year.
The closures will be split between Northern and Southern California, with 4 closing in the north and 4 closing in the south. According to the CDCR, remaining resources, staff, and inmates remaining with the program will be shifted elsewhere in a consolidation attempt.
“This will allow Cal Fire and CDCR to effectively consolidate resources into the remaining 35 conservation camps, so that they can be more efficient and better staffed for response to wildfires, other emergencies, and engagement in conservation-related work,” said a CDCR statement on Monday.
The camp closures had been planned since earlier this month. On October 9th, CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison wrote a letter to staff of her intention to close down 8 of the camps.
“We could not be prouder of the incredibly dedicated conservation camp staff, the work performed, and the service to California in its time of need throughout the program’s 105-year history,” CDCR Secretary Allison said in her letter.
While there has been an increase of wildfires and a need for more hand crews, the main reason for the closures at the end of the year is because of the declining number of low-risk criminals in the CDCR system. As California has been reducing the number of prisoners due to both a court order from the U.S. Supreme Court and AB 109, a state bill in 2012, many lower-risk criminals have been receiving early releases, getting transfers from prisons to jails, or being put on probation without ever setting foot in a cell.
According to the CDCR, this has led to a drastic decline in prisoners working as wildfire fighters. In 2020 there were 1,780 in Conservation Camps, as compared to 3,710 in 2016. While the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase of low-risk, potential wildfire fighter prisoners being released early before the wildfire season, that alone doesn’t account for such a dramatic drop.
Earlier this year, Governor Gavin Newsom did allow for 21 temporary crews to be formed from applicants checked out by Cal Fire and gave the green light for higher-risk inmates to join such crews. However, both came with issues. The 21 temporary crews will only last for the season before being disbanded, while the higher-risk criminals on the crews have been found by some Cal Fire workers to not be as reliable as lower-risk criminals.
Positives, negatives of inmate wildfire crews
Former prisoners who were wildfire fighters in previous years and were only recently allowed to have their records expunged to get firefighting positions as free civilians have said that many of the reasons for the closures given by the CDCR don’t stand up but also agree that an overall decline of prisoners in the program does give them a reason to reduce the number of camps.
“Whoever said that prisoners, even higher-risk prisoners, don’t do their part has obviously never been on the front lines with those guys,” said Victor Gabarra, who had helped fight wildfires as a prisoner. “It is true the numbers have gone down, and it makes sense for them to close the camps if there are not enough people at them. But whoever at the CDCR or wherever who has been saying that they don’t fight or work hard, or get into scuffles is probably sitting down at a desk when half of California is on fire.”
“We’ve gotten compliments from regular firefighters for what we’ve done. We were out there doing things that even they didn’t dare to do. Not everyone is just chopping trees or putting down lines. We’ve helped people evacuate. There was even one time some years back when I was on a crew that a family was leaving a wildfire in an older car and the husband had dropped his keys. In a few minutes, one of the guys had jimmied in their car and hotwired it for them to escape.”
“Say what you want for being in prison for stealing cars, but that day it was used for good. And the family left. We were told that when they asked some regular firefighters up the road who we were that their faces dropped when they learned that we came from a prison. But that goes to show you how we could sometimes even be uniquely skilled to help out in an emergency.”
“They use prisoners because they are cheap and because they don’t really run away or stop working. If they hadn’t been working they would have closed the program down years ago.”
“Again, the closing of the camps make sense because there are fewer, but they also aren’t dismissing any from duty are are being transferred. That shows how good they are. They aren’t cut and run.”
Cal Fire is currently pushing for more firefighters to make up for the loss of the Camps, citing the growing wildfire threat in California in recent years. Officials have said that hired firefighters would be cheaper than the inmate program and would have more skilled workers combatting blazes.
More wildfire related hirings and legislation are expected later this year and next year in preparation for next year’s wildfire season. Many experts have said that future seasons will only grow worse due to climate change in California.