The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, has introduced two hand crews staffed by civilians, rather than inmates. Based in the San Bernardino Unit, their primary mission will be fuels reduction and fighting wildfires in San Bernardino, Inyo, and Mono Counties.
Each Type 2 Initial Attack crew is staffed by 2 Fire Captains and 12 Firefighter I’s. The 4 Captains selected to lead the crews bring 107 years of wildland firefighting experience, with over 60 of those years spent on hand crews. Most of the firefighters have Type 3 engine time and about half bring hand crew experience.
This is a significant step for a state that has been relying on inmate hand crews for over half a century.
With the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the number of inmate firefighters, the CAL FIRE is scrambling to find enough personnel to handle the all important job of cutting fireline and mopping up wildfires.
COVID spreading through inmate crew camps and prisons has cut the number of inmate crews available from 192 to 94. On July 9 California Governor Gavin Newsom said 12 inmate camps had to be quarantined last month due to the virus. Compounding the firefighter shortage was the early release of thousands of state inmates to create more space in the facilities during the pandemic, and before that, the state’s initiative to reduce the incarceration of those jailed for lower-level offenses.
The Governor announced the state intends to hire an additional 858 seasonal and 172 permanent firefighters. The agency has also changed the mission of six California Conservation Camp (CCC) crews to exclusively perform fire related tasks, two in the south and four in the north.