Cal Fire works to replace inmate firefighting crews who are COVID-19 quarantined

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AUBURN, Calif. (KTXL) — Cal Fire stations across the state are staffing up with their own professional hand crews. But they don’t have enough people to fully replace the inmate crews that are out of commission.

With hoes and chainsaws, Cal Fire’s new hand crews have been training to build containment lines.

“They cut and remove brush so that the fire that approaches from the fire side of that line stops and it can’t cross that line,” said Cal Fire NEU Battalion Chief Brian Eagan.

Building containment lines is a physically taxing job that used to be reserved for inmate firefighting crews but COVID-19 has cut the number available in half, according to Eagan.

“It has dramatically impacted the ability for us to keep camps opened, keep crews staffed and keep new inmate firefighters going through the training program,” said Eagan.

According to Cal Fire, 12 of the state’s inmate camps are on lockdown due to the virus.

While they typically staff 192 inmate crews, just 94 are currently available to respond to wildfires.

Cal Fire is now working to train seasonal firefighters to fill the gaps and is staffing all 21 Cal Fire stations across the state with their own hand crews, thanks to funding from the state. But it’s not enough to make up for the missing inmate crews.

“In the Nevada-Yuba-Placer crew one, firefighter one hand crew that we currently have, that’s just one hand crew for a potential loss of three that we would see out of our Washington Ridge Camp,” said Eagan.

He said he’s bracing for major impacts on firefighting capabilities. 

“It adds more workload for our bulldozers, our engines and what hand crews we do have to work that much longer and that much harder to accomplish the same goal,” said Eagan.

At Cal Fire NEU, they have funding to add 28 new seasonal firefighters who started training Monday. Some of them will be working on their new hand crew.

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