Inmate hand crew cuts through vegetation charred by the Cave Fire in Santa Barbara.

Prison lockdowns due to COVID-19 have severely limited the number of inmate hand crews to fight the California fires.

“Some of the toughest work that’s done out there on the lines, some of the most important work, is done by these hand crews,” Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement in July.

State prison officials announced this week that 12 of the 43 inmate fire camps in California are on lockdown.

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As more than 360 fires burn across the state of California, the coronavirus pandemic is creating a massive shortage of inmate fire crews to battle the wildfires. 

Following an outbreak of the disease in a rural California prison, state prison officials announced that 12 of the state’s 43 fire camps will be put on lockdown this week, according to the Sacramento Bee. 

The Lassen County prison, where more than 159 inmates tested positive for the disease in the span of 14 days, served as a training center for fire crews. 

The coronavirus has spread across the state’s prison population, and the spike of coronavirus cases in prisons reduced the number of inmate crews from 77 to 30, prison officials told KXTV.

California has relied on incarcerated firefighters as its primary “hand crews” since the 1940s, and in the past few years, the number of inmate firefighters has grown to 3,500, nearly a fourth of the state’s 15,500 wildfire fighters, according to Cal Fire, the department overseeing the state’s forestry and fire protection. 

The severe reduction of inmate fire camps leaves Cal Fire vulnerable to deal with the extreme conditions with a limited number of inmate fire crews to draw from. 

With the reduction, Governor Gavin Newsom said that California plans hire an additional 800 firefighters to address the shortage of inmate firefighters, NPR reports. 

“Some of the toughest work that’s done out there on the lines, some of the most important work, is done by these hand crews,” he said in a statement in July. “We have some urgency to provide supplemental support in terms of seasonal firefighters.” 

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According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, about 2,200 inmate firefighters are used to fight wildfires across the state. Inmate firefighters do the hazardous work of cutting firelines, a gap in vegetation that serves as a barrier to slow the spread of fires.

Inmate fire crews are required to go through the same training as the state’s seasonal firefighter employees and often must work on the front lines of the fires. However, people on the inmate fire crews are paid between $2 and $5 a day, with an additional $1 per hour when they are on a fire, the Los Angeles Times reports. 

Inmate fire crews are often the first line of defense against wildfires and with their shortage, state fire officials are working on finding new hand crews to fill their place, according to the Sacramento Bee, 

While inmate fire crews are an essential part of Cal Fire operations, the number of inmates eligible to work at the camps has been decreasing, and state officials have been reducing the size of prison populations in response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

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