July 9, 2020 
 

1599px FEMA 33318 Firefighters setting a back burn in CaliforniaCalifornia will hire nearly 900 new seasonal firefighters to make up for a dwindling number of firefighting inmates as wildfires already have blackened more acreage than last year.

The state has long relied on thousands of incarcerated firefighters as the “infantry” of its forces fighting wildfires. But with an outbreak of the novel coronavirus at a key Northern California training hub, combined with efforts to reduce numbers of prisoners, only 94 of the state’s 192 inmate fire crews are available. 

“We are now walking right into the thick of firefighting season,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a press briefing today, standing in front of a new Blackhawk helicopter intended to bolster the state’s fire suppression efforts. “Let us be vigilant.” 

So far slightly more acreage has burned this year compared with last year. But it’s less than half the average annual acreage burned over the past five years; fires scorched 23,640 California acres through July 5th, compared to an average of 51,215. 

In all, 4,112 fires have ignited in California so far this year, far exceeding the five-year average of 2,580 fires through the beginning of July. 

(Image: Northern California fire crews set fire back burn to stop the Poomacha fire in San Diego from advancing westward. FEMA photo/Andrea Booher)

“COVID might infect firefighters”

Typically, roughly 2,200 inmates are on the frontlines of firefighting in California. But Thom Porter, director of Cal Fire — the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — said he expects the inmate crews to reach 75% capacity by the end of the season.  

Porter said the 858 new seasonal firefighters and an additional six crews for the California Conservation Corps will “backstop” the inmates available in the hand crews that use tools and chainsaws to cut firelines. California’s budget also includes $85.6 million for firefighting resources, including an additional 172 full time staff for CalFire’s workforce, according to Newsom. 

“But we are also looking at what the reality is right now,” Porter said. “We don’t have those [inmate] crews and we might not. COVID might infect firefighters and/or hand crews and keep them out of the firefight for a quarantine period, or longer.”

Porter said that Cal Fire will be aggressive about keeping fires small, which he said is key for reducing the threats to public health and costs associated with letting fires burn. 

Porter called this approach “the original Smokey Bear model” in an interview with Smithsonian

“While we are in the COVID pandemic, we have to reduce smoke impacts to communities from long burning wildfires, even in exposure to our firefighters,” Porter told Smithsonian. “We have to keep fires small. Yes, it’s a throwback and not what I want in the future. But it’s something we need to do this year.”

Exposure to wildfire smoke may worsen coronavirus infections and, conversely, coronavirus infections may also increase health risks from breathing smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“A long and difficult fire season”

While California has contained the area burned so far, the months ahead are expected to prime the state to burn. 

After a dry winter and a warm spring, California is seeing moderate to severe drought in the northern half of the state, with extreme drought hitting the border with Oregon. 

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center projects above-average heat in the months to come. And there are signs of a dry autumn ahead, according to an analysis by Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Many officials say that the state’s fire season is now yearlong, but almost all of its most destructive wildfires started in September through December. 

“There are early hints that we’re probably going to be in for a long and difficult fire season, given that we’re still in the easy half. And it’s already getting challenging out there,” Swain told CalMatters. 

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said that evacuations from wildfires will be handled differently this year because of the virus. Some people evacuated from fire zones will be sheltered in hotels, while others may be sent to college dormitories or fairgrounds. At shelters, people’s temperatures will be taken, they will be separated and masks will be required. Meals will be individually served rather than buffet-style. 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus has complicated California’s firefighting efforts by sidelining inmate fire crews. These crews are made up of 15 to 17 inmates cutting firelines. The program has been criticized for low pay, dangerous conditions and limited job prospects in firefighting on release. 

The program saw a major disruption this year when the transfer of inmates from San Quentin likely started an outbreak at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, Northern California’s training hub, the Sacramento Bee reported

The outbreak stopped transfers to the fire camps. Although there are no confirmed cases at the fire camps, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 12 camps are undergoing mandatory quarantine. The quarantine is scheduled to be lifted next week. 

Newsom said that the release of 10,000 inmates since March also decreased the firefighting force, and there are plans to release still more, he said. 

“We are trying to be as prepared and vigilant as possible,” Newsom said. “We’re not looking to react and announce something after the fact.” 

 
Pin it

Coronavirus Resources

  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 20, 2020

    Tips for Spotting Fake News Stories — And Where to Find Sources You Can Trust

    Anytime there’s a significant news event — like a global pandemic, for example — you can expect misinformation to spread across the Internet. “Fake news” means stories that contain fabricated information, or information that’s based on rumor, shoddy methodology or a partisan agenda. With the…
  • Picture1
    April 17, 2020

    Recursos Alimentarios Durante COVID-19

    La alimentacion es una gran prioridad para muchos durante esta pandemia de COVID-19- cómo mantener a su familia alimentada en medio de despidos del trabajo, preocupaciones sobre salidas para conseguir comestibles y la posibilidad de transmisión por medio de los alimentos, todo mientras se trata de…
  • Groceries
    April 14, 2020

    COVID-19: Food Resources

    Food is top of mind for many during the COVID-19 pandemic — how to keep your family fed amid layoffs, concerns about grocery outings and food transmission, all while trying to maintain social distance. If you’re struggling to put food on the table, have questions about food safety or need help…
  • 200323 F BQ566 9001
    April 10, 2020

    COVID-19: Recursos Para Indocumentados y Sin Beneficios

    English version available here. A medida que la pandemia de coronavirus da vuelta la economía de la nación y deja a muchos sin trabajo, los inmigrantes indocumentados son particularmente vulnerables. En esta página encontrará recursos para ayudar a los miembros de la comunidad indocumentados y que…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 07, 2020

    COVID-19: Resources for the Undocumented and Uninsured

    As the coronavirus pandemic upends the nation’s economy and leaves many without work, undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable. On this page you’ll find resources to help undocumented community members and the uninsured. UndocuFund for Disaster Relief in Sonoma County The UndocuFund,…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 03, 2020

    COVID-19: Santa Clara County Resources

    Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department is providing detailed information about COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospital capacity on several data dashboards available online. The county has also assembled a variety of COVID-19 resources, as listed below and found at sccphd.org/coronavirus. Food…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    Apr 03, 2020

    COVID-19: How to Help

    As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take lives and strain resources, you might be wondering how you can help. Perhaps the most important thing you…
  • SR PD
    Mar 31, 2020

    Santa Rosa Police Department Mourns Loss of Detective

    Updated March 31, 2020, 4:00 p.m. The Santa Rosa Police Department reported today that Detective Marylou Armer passed away from complications from…
  • Medical
    Mar 31, 2020

    Coronavirus Resources

    The coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges for communities throughout the world. Whether you need help getting access to food, filing for…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    Mar 30, 2020

    COVID-19: Financial Resources for Sonoma County Residents

    California and the nation have seen a surge in unemployment claims as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to close their doors, leaving…
  • Library photo for website
    Mar 30, 2020

    Help the Sonoma County Library Tell the Story of Life During COVID-19

    The Sonoma County Library will be documenting life during the coronavirus pandemic with a special collection, and you’re invited to contribute. The…
  • 032920CalMattersEmptyRestaurant
    Mar 29, 2020

    California’s Shelter-In-Place Order, Explained

    By Byrhonda Lyons, CalMatters As President Donald Trump considers easing national restrictions by Easter, Californians are into their first week of…
  • 032920DowntownSantaRosa
    Mar 29, 2020

    Santa Rosa Outlines COVID-19 Support for Homeless

    The city of Santa Rosa says it’s following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect people experiencing…
  • gavin schools
    Mar 28, 2020

    Los Angeles Will Mirror New York As Coronavirus Surges, Newsom and Garcetti Warn

    By Judy Lin, Ben Christopher and Matt Levin, CalMatters Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued dire warnings Friday that the…
  • 032820CovidHandwashing
    Mar 28, 2020

    COVID-19: Sonoma County Resources for Seniors and Vulnerable Populations

    On March 17, Sonoma County’s health officer issued an order for all residents to shelter in place to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The order…
  • 032720CoronavirusResearch
    Mar 27, 2020

    Here’s What Happens to Science When California’s Researchers Shelter in Place

    By Rachel Becker, CalMatters As California officials desperately try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Chris Miller is coaxing a sample of…

Science & Health News

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.