Prison Fire Camps Remain Quarantined After Nurse Team Exposes Inmates

Inmate firefighters battle the Ferguson fire in Jerseydale, California, on July 22, 2018.  (Noah Bergern/AFP/Getty Images)

Four of 12 Northern California prison fire camps under a coronavirus quarantine will have that quarantine extended because the hundreds of inmates housed there were potentially exposed to the coronavirus a second time. That possible contact with the virus came from one or more nurses brought in to test the inmates and who later became sick with COVID-19, according to a camp commander and two people incarcerated at one of the camps.

The firefighters at the four camps make up as many as 16 of the state’s 77 Northern California prison crews, each of which typically contains 12 to 16 inmates. That means for several more weeks, about 250 of the state’s firefighters could be unavailable in case of a big fire. Currently, hundreds of more inmates at the other quarantined fire camps are also inactive, though many will be returned to duty soon, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The out-of-commission inmates make up a small but significant chunk of Cal Fire's 11,450 full-time and seasonal firefighters and other employees.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the hiring of 858 more fire personnel to replace some of the prison crews sidelined by lockdowns or thinned by the early release of 10,000 prisoners, which decreased the population of the crowded penitentiary system in order to slow the spread of the virus.

That hiring is "underway right now,”said Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire spokesperson. “The hires are going to help us to cover the number of crews that we've lost from the camps program.”

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But she acknowledged it will take some time to hire the seasonal workers, and that the fire camps play an important role in helping the state fight wildfires. “The folks that are on quarantine, we're hoping they're going to get off of that and be available again this fire season,” she said.

The setback highlights the challenges that California and other Western states are facing heading into the most dangerous part of fire season amid the worst global pandemic in 100 years.

This year, the northern part of California received a moderate amount of winter rain, and the region faces a worse-than-average outlook for wildfires. The recent coronavirus surge across California, just as the state enters its hottest, driest and most fire-prone months, could make this current fire season especially complicated and perilous.

Lt. Ben Ingwerson, the CDCR officer in charge of Valley View, one of the four camps under the prolonged quarantine, expressed frustration that his crews remain under lockdown at such a critical time.

“It's like being a football player who is starting quarterback and now you're sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “We risk our lives to save houses, property and people. That's what we do. That's the mission we signed up for. So it sucks sitting on the sideline. Nobody is going to like that."

Multiple Exposures at CDCR

The possible exposure of more prisoners to the coronavirus also comes on the heels of widespread criticism of CDCR by lawmakers, advocates and public health officials for the way the department has handled outbreaks at penitentiaries. In the most high-profile incident, the transfer of inmates at the virus-riddled California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin State Prison in Marin County resulted in an explosion of some 2,000 infections at San Quentin, including 12 deaths.

The inmates at the 12 quarantined fire camps were initially exposed to the coronavirus during a large outbreak at the California Correctional Center in Susanville. They were put under quarantine after CDCR officials learned from contact tracing that the inmates had stopped at that prison, a hub for prisoner firefighter training, before they headed to the rural fire camps, where the state can quickly dispatch them to fight wildfires.

CDCR did not find any confirmed infections at the 12 camps that were connected to the Susanville outbreak. One person thought to have the coronavirus was “a false positive,” according to CDCR spokesperson Aaron Francis.

“The quarantine was placed out of an abundance of caution and CDCR expects that many of the conservation camps will return to active service by next week,” he said in an email.

The extended quarantine is occurring at Intermountain, Sugar Pine and Salt Creek conservation camps, in addition to Valley View, according to Ingwerson, the CDCR lieutenant.

Ingwerson said at least one of the four nurses who conducted coronavirus tests on inmates at the four camps is now sick with COVID-19 herself, necessitating the extended lockdown.

Two inmates also told KQED that prison officials informed them they were exposed to the virus through nurses who had come down with COVID-19.

Beyond confirming the extended quarantine, the CDCR's Francis wouldn't discuss details of the camps affected or the nurse or nurses believed to be the source of the infections.

So far, the crews housed at the four camps are still not experiencing any symptoms, according to Ingwerson. CDCR plans to test the inmates again this week, but in a best-case scenario, the lockdown at the four facilities won’t be lifted for at least two weeks, and only if no cases are found, he said.

“If the tests both come back negative, then we'll be up and running with the rest of the crews."

Jason Dixon, who is incarcerated at Valley View, located in rural Glenn County, said, We got a lot of motivated, hardworking firefighters here. We're trying hard to get out there on the fires.”

Compared to a prison like San Quentin, Dixon says, it is easier to keep physically distanced at the camp. Inmates sleep on single beds instead of bunk beds, and they have an hour or two each day in an exercise yard, where they can keep distant from other people. Each night they can use the telephone, which is sanitized in-between calls, he said.

We have guys that are daily cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning the dorms, disinfecting everything." While the crews are “trying to stay positive,” he said they’re “getting thrown speed bumps left and right.”

During the lockdown, most people incarcerated in the camps are required to spend the bulk of the day at their bunks, and they do pushups and other exercises to stay in firefighting shape, Dixon says.

All of us here worked very hard to come to fire camp,” said Tony Simoneau, another inmate at Valley View. “And it's been a nightmare.”

While there may be more space in a fire camp, said Charles Pattillo, former executive director of the California Prison Industry Authority, which manages businesses that hire CDCR prisoners, "You’re basically just running a prison in the woods. You have lower security issues. But you don’t have access to medical there.”

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The use of inmate firefighters in dangerous wildfires has been criticized by criminal justice advocates, who point out the inmates are paid a small wage of a few dollars a day, plus an additional $1 per hour when they are fighting fires.