California scrambles for more firefighters amid pandemic
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As California enters wildfire season, the state is scrambling to find sufficient firefighters amid the coronavirus outbreak that has depleted the ranks of inmates who usually handle some of the toughest duties and caused a budget deficit that derailed plans to hire 600 new state firefighters and support personnel.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday said the state would instead add 172 professional firefighters and he’ll use his emergency authority to beef up seasonal crews as the state enters another hot, dry summer when fires often rage out of control.
The threat from coronavirus already sidelined some of the firefighting hand crews that do what Newsom called “the really hard grunt work.” They typically include 15-17 inmates or civilian California Conservation Corps members who use hand tools and chainsaws to cut and scrape road-like clearings through trees and brush to stem the spread of wildfires.
Just 94 of the state’s 192 authorized inmate crews are available, “substantially down from where we’ve been in the past,” Newsom said, after the state was forced to temporarily quarantine 12 inmate firefighter camps last month. The state has also released thousands of inmates to create space during the pandemic and before that, as part of a plan to reduce incarceration for lower-level offenses.
In response, Newsom announced Thursday he will use $72.4 million to hire 858 additional seasonal firefighters and field six more California Conservation Corps crews through October. That’s sharply down from his pre-pandemic plan to spend $200 million to hire about 500 professional firefighters and 100 support staff. The budget he signed last week includes funding for the 172 permanent positions.
Tim Edwards, president of the union representing state firefighters, said even the 600 positions would merely have restored the state’s professional ranks to normal, but called the new hires “a very good start.”
The news comes as the state reported a record 149 virus-related deaths, although Newsom noted that some may be delayed reports. California’s death toll has now topped 6,700, with hospital admissions climbing 44% over the last two weeks, forcing state-ordered shutdowns of many businesses like bars and indoor restaurants that had just reopened.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
The Red Cross also put out a call Thursday for more fire season volunteers, saying the pandemic will make it hard to deploy trained disaster volunteers from other parts of the country if a major wildfire breaks out.
Red Cross and state officials say they hope to put evacuees in hotels when possible, but when shelters are needed they will add medical workers to conduct health screenings, sanitize shared living quarters and help with food distribution.
Officials are also taking steps to prevent the virus from spreading among firefighters, in part by keeping crew members together but physically separated from other teams.
“They will be considered a family unit” as they eat, sleep, travel and fight fires together, CalFire Chief Thom Porter said.
He said he doesn’t expect to field the full number of inmate crews anytime this year. But he hopes that by the height of the fall wildfire season the state can have about 155 crews operating, about the same as last year.
California is compensating in part by finding more bulldozers and boosting its air power with things such as three modern Black Hawk firefighting helicopters, one of which served as a backdrop for Newsom’s news conference.
Those aircraft can quickly dump water and retardant on and around small fires to help keep them from growing out of control, Porter said.
“We will make it happen,” Porter said. “We have the air fleet to do so.”
Nguyen reported from Oakland.