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CAL FIRE: early inmate releases have hurt staffing

by: Esteban Reynoso

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) – Due to its dependency on fire-fighting inmate crews, CAL FIRE says the pandemic-era prison policies have hurt its staffing and it’s raising questions about the agency’s ability to fight massive fires.

CAL FIRE says due to early releases, reduced sentences, and pandemic-era policies, the inmates to battle fires are in short supply.

Before 2020, CAL FIRE officials say they were pretty well staffed with inmate hand crews at about 90%, but now, many of those prisoners have been released, and that dramatically changes the equation.

California’s early prison release policies are having a dramatic effect on the state’s ability to fight fires and flooding.

“We’re 86 crews short right now of the CAL FIRE CDCR crews,” said Chief Justin Schmollinger with Cal Fire.

He says out of the 152 inmate crews the department needs, only 57 are fully staffed, and according to Cal Fire leaders, this leaves one of their most important assets slashed by more than half.

“We are the largest wildland fire department in the world, and one of our main resources, and one of our major tools in the toolbox is our hand crews,” said Schmollinger.

The inmate assistance programs are another victim of the COVID pandemic.

“COVID-19 did play a big part of it, we did have a lot of releases, the early releases played a big part in our program. A lot of those individuals that were eligible for the early release were from the camp program,” said Schmollinger.

In total, according to Chief Schmollinger, there are supposed to be over 2,500 individual inmate volunteers year-round, but right now, the number is 939 statewide. Only certain prisoners are eligible to help with the special crews, making the situation even tougher.

“A lot of the minor things that would allow you to be in the program, they’re just not, they’re not there. We’ve had to come up with ideas to get additional crews,” he said.

CAL FIRE is now forced to turn to seasonal firefighters, the conservation core, and even the National Guard.

Chief Schmollinger says the situation is on the back of their heads.

“I mean that’s always in the back of our heads because of the lack of hand crews. Yeah, it’s in the back of our heads. I don’t know if it’s a worry but it’s in the back of our head,” he said.

Prisoners do get special benefits for taking part in these crews such as pay through the CDCR, and prisoners could get their record expunged.

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