California has lost critical manpower in its fight against the wildfires after more than 800 inmates in a controversial firefighting program were released from state prisons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state relies on the prison population to make up a staggering 43 percent of its fire crews, meaning it has been left with a shortage of much-needed resources at a time when they are needed most.
The current crisis facing the state has brought the debate over using prisoners for the essential public service to the fore, given they earn just $1 an hour for the dangerous work and many liken the scheme to slave labor.
Around one million acres of the Golden State have been destroyed over the course of the last week after adverse lightning strikes and hot weather sparked more than 500 mammoth fires.
One of the huge blazes has grown to become the second largest in the state’s history and at least six people have been killed.
Firefighting resources have been pushed to the breaking point in the face of the escalating wildfires and Gov. Gavin Newsom is calling on other states and nations to draft in help.
Around 800 inmate firefighters have been released since the pandemic began, under measures aimed at protecting the prison population from a deadly outbreak.
Around 600 of the inmates have taken place since July as cases began to soar again across California.
Prisons are known coronavirus hotbeds, with cramped and often unsanitary conditions creating breeding ground for the virus.
This has taken the state down to 1,659 inmate firefighters from the 2,255 available in April, reported Los Angeles Times.
Cal Fire’s union leadership spoke out about a loss of inmate firefighters back in April, warning that they make up two-thirds of its force.
As the state now buckles under the weight of some of the biggest fires in its history, its reliance on prison labor for the critical service has been thrown into the spotlight.
Inmates are tasked with carrying out some of the most difficult and dangerous work of fire crews, under a scheme critics slam as exploitative and have long called for abolition.
Incarcerated firefighters are paid just $1 an hour when working on the front lines in the dangerous jobs battling wildfires that regularly strike the state.
Six inmate firefighters have been killed in duty over the last three and a half decades, in what many describe as slave labor.