Let's Talk About Wildfires and Prisons

The sign outside of California Medical Facility state prison in Vacaville, on a smoky hot August afternoon (Pendarvis Harshaw)

My drive down Interstate 80, from Sacramento to Oakland, takes me through the intersection of three major issues plaguing California: COVID-19, global warming and mass incarceration.

Cows near Davis eat grass sprinkled with ash. Hillsides along the highway in Vacaville are in burnt-toast status. From the Hunter Hill rest area, a hilltop that overlooks a portion of Vallejo and the Bay beyond it, smoke from other fires hangs around the region.

In the sky above, the sun fights to shine through the layer of haze; the color of rage reflects off the water. It's now the burgundy Bay Area.

It’s August again in California: wildfire season, albeit a bit earlier than past years.

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Last week a lightning storm with a record amount of ground strikes passed through Northern California, kicking off numerous wildfires. Over the weekend, Governor Gavin Newsom reported nearly 600 fires burning in the state.

Two of those fires are the largest the state has ever seen—a statistic we've heard almost every year for the past four years.

The sun turns crimson red in Sonoma County due to smoke from the LNU Lightning Complex fires.
The sun turns crimson red in Sonoma County due to smoke from the LNU Lightning Complex fires. (Robert Meline)

Near Santa Cruz, fires tore through Big Basin state park, ravaging the campgrounds, buildings and some enormous redwoods that have stood since before Christ walked the earth. The CZU Lightning Complex fire has consumed over 70,000 acres near the northern portion of Santa Cruz County, and is only 8% contained.

In the far eastern reaches of Alameda County, the SCU Lightning Complex fire, the culmination of 20 individual fires, has wiped out over 340,000 acres, and is only 10% contained.

Along the northern coast, in the town of Guerneville, a place that knows both wildfires and floods on a first-name basis, the Walbridge fire is wreaking havoc, having consumed over 50,000 acres, and only 5% contained.

The LNU Lightning Complex fire has torn through portions of Napa's wine country, as well as residential areas in the city of Vacaville. Numerous structures have been compromised, livestock has been lost, and there have been four human fatalities reported thus far, as the fire has burned over 350,000 acres and is 22% contained after burning for six days.

Vehicles burned by the LNU Lightning Complex sit off Pleasants Valley Road near Vacaville on Aug. 19, 2020.
Vehicles burned by the LNU Lightning Complex sit off Pleasants Valley Road near Vacaville on Aug. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Evacuation orders have been lifted in Vacaville, so I pulled off at Alamo Drive.

A brief tour around the area where the fire burned shows that it came within a few miles of two state prisons, California Medical Facility (CMF) and Solano State Prison. According to CDCR's latest weekly report, CMF currently houses 2,168 people (91.8% of the capacity for which the facility was built) while Solano currently holds 3,461 people (132.6% of the capacity for which the facility was built).

When officials ordered local residents to be evacuated because of the fire, the evacuation area originally outlined by the Vacaville Police Department contained the two prisons. But the people in both prisons were never evacuated, and instead given masks. Soon after, the facilities were removed from the mandatory evacuation listing, with a CDCR spokesperson giving the reason that "they were not in immediate danger."

At the same time, the Mercury News reported that as firefighters approached Cherry Hill Road, just over the ridge from the prisons, they radioed to each other, “do not worry about any firefighting.” Instead, they scrambled to assist in the evacuation of local residents.

Before getting back on 80, I sat in the 90-degree heat at 5pm and watched the ash accumulate in the gutter outside of CMF, thinking of the CDCR's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's most exemplified by the outbreak at San Quentin, where one transfer has led to hundreds of cases of COVID-19, and over 25 COVID-19 related deaths.

Despite hundreds of people being released in recent months, the Californian prison system remains overcrowded. And in addition, healthcare in prisons is lackluster.

CMF, which has reported one new case of COVID-19 in the past 14 days (while only testing 23% of their population during that span), is designed to house people who are terminally ill, as well as those dealing with mental health issues and other diseases.

For six months in 2018, I worked at that facility, teaching a writing class through the William James Association Prison Arts Project. I met people who appreciate storytelling through rap music, as well as public radio. They took religious gatherings as seriously as their basketball games. And their gardening program provided a mental release for at least one person—I know, because that's what he'd often write about.

Humans, all of them. Now impacted by COVID-19 and smoke inhalation from wildfires, just like all of us. But mass incarceration is the part of that intersection that hits them the hardest.

A firefighter assesses a blaze during the LNU Lightning Complex blaze on the outskirts of Vacaville on Aug. 19, 2020.
A firefighter assesses a blaze during the LNU Lightning Complex blaze on the outskirts of Vacaville on Aug. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Right now, the state of California is a yule log. Fires are burning everywhere. On Sunday, the California Office of Emergency Services published an updated map of current fires in the state. I held it up against a map of California's penal institutions.

There are fires close to a number of facilities, undoubtedly sending unhealthy air inside the buildings. But there's nothing like seeing the proximity of the fire in Vacaville, and knowing that over 5,000 people are inside the prisons in the not-too-far distance.

It's one thing to consider how the people around them were evacuated, but those in the prisons weren't. It adds a layer of anger to know that every year, people serving time behind bars earn pennies to fight fires. And this year, despite a lower number of incarcerated firefighters due to the state releasing hundreds of inmates to slow the spread of COVID-19 amongst the remaining prison population, there are still incarcerated people out there, working the frontlines, fighting fires. And Vacaville residents are thankful for their work—there's video to show it.

Which raises the lingering question: if we're standing at the intersection of mass incarceration, global warming and COVID-19, what's the plan? How will officials replace the cheap labor force they've been using to fight fires? And does the CDCR have an evacuation plan for the people remaining inside of California's facilities?

Last week, a CDCR spokesperson mentioned precautions the organization has taken, such as clearing some of the surrounding acreage behind the Vacaville facilities. But when asked about a specific evacuation plan, the spokesperson danced around the question, according to reports.

Given recent trends, we will undoubtedly see more wildfires in California. Looking at the location of many of California's penal institutions, they will continue to be impacted by climate change. And understanding the correlation between overcrowding and the prevalence of health issues within the system, it doesn't seem likes there's any room to budge.

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So, again, what's the plan?