By: Danielle Dawson
In response to raging wildfires throughout the state caused by dangerous winds, dry conditions and abnormally high temperatures, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a State of Emergency on Friday, Oct. 25.
Last month, there were a total of 17 different fires burning throughout the state. As of Nov. 11, eight are currently still active.
The Kincade fire in Sonoma County, which has been the largest of these fires, has burned approximately 77,758 acres of land. This fire forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate and left more than 2 million Pacific Gas & Electric customers without electrical power. The fire began Oct. 23 and, as of Nov. 11, is 100% contained.
“We are deploying every resource available and are coordinating with numerous agencies as we continue to respond to these fires,” Newsom said in a press release. “It is critical that people in evacuation zones heed these warnings from officials and first responders, and have the local and state resources they need as we fight these fires.”
These resources have included the use of prisoners to fight fires on the front lines. The state’s Conservation Camp Program utilizes inmates as additional disaster support for state, local and federal government agencies. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, approximately 2,600 inmates are fire-line qualified.
In an article published by The Atlantic, the use of incarcerated individuals as volunteer firefighters has been a California practice since the 1940s. These individuals make up a third of the state’s manpower in fighting wildfires.
However, this practice has recently come under scrutiny due to the inability of many inmates from entering into the firefighting field after being released. Most fire departments require candidates to have an EMT license, which is extremely difficult for individuals with felony convictions to obtain.
Additional controversy over this labor has been stoked by low wages given to inmates who participate in the program. The prisoners receive $1.00 an hour plus $2.00 a day of compensation, which, according to officials, saves the state $90 to $100 million a year.
The use of the California inmates as a resource for combating fires in the state is one facet of a much larger debate surrounding the nature of labor in prisons. While the California program is voluntary, many other prison labor programs are not. Often called a form of “modern-day slavery” by its critics, the practice is authorized by a clause in the 13th Amendment, allowing involuntary labor to be used as a means of punishment for a crime.
According to the National Weather Service, Southern California has experienced a late season heatwave. This was brought on by temperatures 10 degrees above average mixing with high pressure and offshore winds over the past week.
Cities across the region endured temperatures in the high 90s — Anaheim notably reaching a high of 98 degrees Monday, Oct. 21.
“The combination of strong offshore winds with very dry conditions and fuels will lead to dangerous fire weather conditions across parts of California,” the National Weather Service said. ”Critical and extreme threats are likely to persist in north-central and Southern California through midweek.”
Irvine is expected to cool down over the next few weeks, with projected highs in the 70s and 80s and lows in the 50s.