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California’s Struggle To Fight Fires On Multiple Fronts

Andrea Booher

As of Thursday, there are dozens of active fires in the Bay Area. But with a pandemic raging, there’s also a shortage of one particular group of firefighters: inmate firefighters.

Since World War II, California has depended upon incarcerated people to battle its seasonal wildfires. This partnership between Cal-Fire and state prisons offers participants an opportunity to earn time off their sentences, and potential careers in firefighting upon release. But many inmate firefighters have been quarantined in California’s prisons during the pandemic.

With the loss of inmate crews, Cal Fire anticipated a shortage and asked the state to hire 553 firefighters in January. But given California’s budget woes, they were only allowed 153 new hires, leaving Cal-Fire short about 400 crew members. In the past month, the state granted Cal-Fire emergency approval for an additional 830 seasonal hires, which is still less than the normal seasonal crew largely composed of inmates paid less than $5 a day.

However, the emergency hires have already proven to be insufficient. Record-breaking heat met with 10,849 lightning strikes within 72 hours has sparked 367 concurrent fires throughout the state. 


Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and since then, the fires have engulfed 320,000 acres. On Wednesday, he asked Arizona, Nevada, and Texas for assistance battling the fires. But there’s one problem: those states are also experiencing heat waves and fires of their own. 

Imran Ali Malik was a fellow in KALW's Audio Academy class of 2020. His reporting interests are design, economy, and telling stories of invisible structures and forgotten histories.