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Coronavirus Sidelines Prison Inmates Who Help Fight Wildfires


California is in peak fire season and does not have all the firefighters it needs. That's because the state relies on prison inmates to help contain its largest wildfires. From KQED, Kevin Stark reports the pandemic sidelined more than 1,000 inmates.

KEVIN STARK, BYLINE: Last year's wine country Kincade Fire in Sonoma County had Jason Dixon working furiously.


JASON DIXON: We have the saws going in the beginning, and everyone's using hand tools, scraping a 6-foot cut all the way around the fire's edge.

STARK: Dixon and I first spoke last October a day after he and other inmate firefighters made an aggressive stand to protect a neighborhood nestled in the golden foothills.


DIXON: Absolutely seen flames enough to singe your beard hair.

STARK: This year, the pandemic has kept him off the job. In June, officials put more than half the state's inmate firefighting crews on lockdown after they were potentially exposed to the coronavirus through an outbreak at a training facility. As the summer heat bakes state forests, Dixon is stuck at his fire camp, one of more than 40 located in rural parts of the state.

DIXON: We're trying hard to get out there on the fires. You know, we're working out daily still, training hard. But we're dealing with the coronavirus, so we're getting thrown speed bumps left and right.

STARK: People like Dixon carry heavy backpacks and perform vital but backbreaking grunt work. They use saws and axes to clear underbrush around a fire. California has used inmate firefighters since the 1940s. In recent years, more than a fifth of the state's wildfire fighters were inmates, but COVID-19 has put many in quarantine while others have been sent home from prison. California's governor has granted early release to thousands to depopulate crowded prisons and to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

CHRISTINE MCMORROW: The folks that are, you know, on quarantine, we're hoping they're going to get off of that and be available again this fire season.

STARK: Christine McMorrow is a spokesperson for the state fire agency. She says California is scrambling to hire hundreds more seasonal firefighters as backfill.

MCMORROW: There's always the possibility - right? - that some crew somewhere is going to get quarantined.

STARK: Inmate firefighters are paid only a few dollars a day to do very dangerous work. Sometimes it costs them their lives. And every year, critics of the program point out that inmates face an uphill battle getting hired by a fire agency after their release because of their felony records.

One of those critics is Charles Pattillo. He used to oversee the program that helps employers hire incarcerated workers. Rather than using cheap prison labor for firefighting, he says the state should train more young people for these well-paid jobs.

CHARLES PATILLO: We have tons of kids that are 18 to 25 out there that could be trained as firefighters, and we wouldn't have this big shortage that they're having.

STARK: Inmate firefighters on lockdown spend most of their day in their dorms. Jason Dixon, who fought the Kincade Fire last year, says he's at least happy to be quarantined at a fire camp and not a general population prison. He's staying in firefighting shape by doing push-ups. He knows it's a longshot, but he hopes to be hired to fight wildfires when he's released from prison next year.

DIXON: The best thing is the reaction on the people's face because you run into people on the fire who live out there, and they're, like, they're very thankful, and it's like - it makes you feel good inside.

STARK: For now, Dixon thinks mostly about avoiding the coronavirus and getting back to defending homes from wildfires once he's out of quarantine. For NPR News, I'm Kevin Stark in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Stark