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California's inmate firefighter crews are dwindling just as the state starts to burn

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California's inmate firefighter crews are dwindling just as the state starts to burn


Two wet winters followed by repeated record-breaking heat waves in recent months have set California on a path to a fiery summer.

And though firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection will be on the front lines against the flames, behind them in the trenches are hundreds of California inmates, digging, chopping and chainsawing containment lines for crews to gain an advantage. And there are fewer of them than ever.

Peppered throughout the state’s 35 conservation camps — minimum-security facilities — they perform crucial fuel-reduction projects year-round and are occasionally placed in the path of advancing flames. Sometimes, at the cost of their own lives.

But prison reform and the COVID-19 pandemic have shrunk the pool of inmates eligible to attend the camps — operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Cal Fire or the Los Angeles County Fire Department — for fire training and assignments. At the same time that the camp sizes have shrunk — from a peak of 4,250 to fewer than 1,800 today — California has experienced its biggest and deadliest fires, with this summer off to a bad start.

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Despite that, Cal Fire and state corrections officials say their strategy of using younger inmates, leaning on seasonal crews longer and partnering with the California Conservation Corps and California Military Department will get them through the year and eventually bring inmate firefighter numbers back to pre-pandemic levels.

“I know there’s been other articles that have painted a picture of doom and gloom and despair,” said Jarrod Clinkenbeard, staff chief of the hand crew program for Cal Fire. “I don’t feel like that’s where we are.”

An inmate fire crew mops up the Kanan fire in Agoura Hills last July.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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In 2005, at the peak of the inmate firefighter program, officially known as the Conservation (Fire) Camp Program, there were 192 crews, or 4,250 inmate firefighters, according to the state corrections department. Participants of the program include support staff such as cooks, orderlies and maintenance workers. Four years ago, as prisons shut down and inmate populations declined, the corrections department winnowed the camps down to 1,821 participants. As of July 2, there were about 83 hand crews, or 1,760 participants.

Depending on the year, inmate fire crews account for as much as 30% of the state’s wildfire force and are typically paid $5.80 to $10.24 per day by the corrections department, earning an additional dollar per hour from Cal Fire when responding to a disaster. Inmate fire crews are made up of 12 to 17 firefighters, led by a fire captain. Inmates who have been convicted of violent crimes, such as rape, lewd acts with a child under 14 or any felony punishable by death or life in prison, or who have a history of escaping or arson, are automatically disqualified.

In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom on June 21, Los Angeles County Supervisors Lindsey Horvath and Kathryn Barger voiced concerns about deeper cuts to the program that would’ve shuttered five camps in the county, affecting more than 200 inmate firefighters.

“The implications of such cuts are dire,” the letter read in part. “As you are aware, California faces a critical shortage of wildland firefighting hand crews, a situation that has been exacerbated by the increasing frequency and severity of wildland fires due to climate change.”

Indeed, the loss of hand crews has occurred nationwide but the labor crisis is particularly acute in California, where 14 of the 15 largest fires on record have occurred since 2007. This year the state has seen 90,000 acres burn, significantly more than the average at this point in the season.

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Inmate crews set backfires to heavy brush near Thousand Oaks.

Inmate crews set backfires to heavy brush near Thousand Oaks in 2019.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The governor recently took the five L.A. County fire camps off his list of cuts this year, as Horvath and Barger had requested, but other efforts to increase inmate firefighting have been months or years in the making.

In August, the corrections department launched the Youthful Offender Program’s Conservation Camp, a pilot program that allows eligible young incarcerated adults to become firefighters and that is set to expire next year unless it is made permanent.

The program is an offshoot of the corrections department’s Youthful Offender Program established in 2014 and allows eligible inmates ages 18 to 25 to receive fire training before being housed at Growlersburg Conservation Camp in Georgetown, a mountain community northeast of Sacramento.

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All inmate firefighters receive the same training that seasonal wildland firefighters receive, including a week of classroom instruction and a week of field exercises. Once inmates graduate from the program, they are eligible to be placed at a camp.

There are currently 113 total camp volunteers at Growlersburg. Of those, 30 are part of the pilot program and 18 are inmates who are certified mentors. The young adult firefighters responded to their first fire May 10 in El Dorado County.

Corrections officials said that the program is showing promising results and that the number of hand crews may slowly inch back to 2019 levels, when there were 1,975 inmate firefighters and support staff at the department’s fire camps.

An inmate firefighter uses a drip torch to slow a fire burning north of Redding.

An inmate firefighter from the Trinity River Conservation Camp uses a drip torch to slow a fire burning north of Redding in 2021.

(Ethan Swope / Associated Press)

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It took years for California to reach this point, and it will take years to find a reliable solution, officials said.

Hand crew cuts have occurred in waves as penalties for some crimes were reduced, Clinkenbeard said. The first wave came in 2011 with California’s realignment law that mandated some nonviolent inmates serve time in county jails instead of prisons.

Then Californians in 2014 approved Proposition 47, which allowed the courts to reduce penalties for some nonviolent theft crimes and drug possession offenses that were reclassified as misdemeanors.

Three years later, voters approved Proposition 57, allowing inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to be considered for early release or parole.

In 2020, the pandemic led the state to release more inmates to allow more distancing among those behind bars.

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Then two years ago, the California Correctional Center in Susanville, which doubles as a firefighting training center for inmates, closed. Another one is expected to close next year.

Despite the reductions, Clinkenbeard said, Cal Fire still has a healthy number of hand crews for the fire season. He said the agency also has mutual aid agreements with other states that can be called upon to help boost its firefighting force.

As of July 2, Cal Fire had 149 hand crews, 65 of which were state inmate crews; 38 were seasonal firefighters, 32 were participants with the California Conservation Corps and 14 were from the California Military Defense.



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California

Los Angeles Zoo has record-breaking 2024 California condor breeding season

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Los Angeles Zoo has record-breaking 2024 California condor breeding season


The Los Angeles Zoo is making strides in saving the California condor, America’s largest flying bird, from extinction.  

The zoo capped off its 2024 condor breeding season with a record-breaking 17 chicks hatched, breaking the record of 15 set in 1997.  

The large bird has a wingspan of nine-and-a-half feet, stands around three feet, and weighs between 17 to 25 pounds. Like vultures and other scavengers, condors feed on carcasses of large animals including deer, cattle, and marine mammals such as whales and seals. 

ca-condor-male-flying-photo-courtesy-of-l-a-zoo.jpg
The California condor has a typical wingspan of nine-and-a-half feet.

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Jamie Pham


According to the L.A. Zoo, the condors’ high mortality rate is mostly due to lead poisoning from eating lead bullet fragments or shot pellets found in animal carcasses. In recent years, the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) has become another growing threat to the species’ survival. 

In 1983, there were only 22 California condors remaining on the planet. This was when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Fish and Game Commission decided to create a captive breeding program for the species, which the L.A. Zoo entered as a founding partner. 

“The L.A. Zoo has been an integral partner in the recovery of the iconic California condor since the inception of the program in the 1980s when the species was at the brink of extinction,” Denise M. Verret, Los Angeles Zoo CEO/Zoo Director said. 

In 2017, the L.A. Zoo pioneered a new breeding technique where animal care staff placed two condor chicks with a surrogate condor to raise the chicks.  

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This year, the L.A. Zoo’s condor team implemented another first for the program, allowing three chicks to be raised at the same time by a female. This method also prevents human involvement, which leads to better survival rates for the birds once released in the wild.  

All the chicks bred at the L.A. Zoo are candidates for release into the wild.  

As of December 2023, there are 561 California condors in the world, of which 344 are living in the wild, according to the L.A. Zoo.  

While California condors are not on exhibit at the zoo, guests can participate in Condor Spotting, held daily (except Tuesdays) from 12:30 to 1:00 p.m. Guests can also see Hope, a non-releasable California condor, at the Angela Collier World of Birds Show 12:00 p.m., daily, except Tuesday, weather permitting. 

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What the death of local news actually means

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What the death of local news actually means


Good morning. It’s Wednesday, July 24. I’m Gustavo Arellano, a metro columnist, which means I’m allowed to have opinions like:

Newspapers are cool.

But before I begin my rant, here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Whither the news industry in California?

Since I was a teen, I’ve lapped up newspapers.

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I used to steal the sports section from the rolled-up newspapers on the driveways of homes on the way to Sycamore Junior High in Anaheim. When I realized there was more to life than just the Angels and Dodgers, I’d jump a fence every Sunday morning to buy copies of the Orange County Register and L.A. Times from news boxes in my neighboring apartment complex. Once I got a job my senior year of high school, I subscribed to those two papers along with the New York Times.

I went into journalism straight out of college despite earning a film studies degree — I’ve never regretted it. But as the years went on, I ended my print subscriptions because I could read for free on the internet most of what I used to pay for.

An empty news rack that used to sell the Spanish-language newspaper Excélsior still remains along Bristol Street in a small shopping area in Santa Ana.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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It’s people like me who launched the proverbial Little Boy that destroyed too many journalism outlets to count.

But the Fat Man remains companies like Craigslist, Google and Facebook, which eradicated the traditional business model of news organizations — advertising. This one-two punch has led to mass layoffs, shutdowns and a society where misinformation reigns.

Two bills currently in the California Legislature, Assembly Bill 886 and Senate Bill 1327, seek to confront this digital dystopia.

The former would require social media giants such as Facebook and search engines like Google to pay news outlets for using their content; the latter would use the revenue gathered from a proposed tax on user data gathered by Big Tech to gift news groups a tax credit for every full-time journalist they employ. The California News Publisher Assn., of which The Times is a member, supports AB 886, arguing it could give the state’s dying news industry — and local news — a lifeline.

(Tech companies vehemently oppose the bills, arguing it’s unfair to target them when the news industry hasn’t kept up with modernity and readers have more options to get their news than ever before.)

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These bills aren’t merely a desperate money grab by the lamestream press, folks.

A limping media ecosystem affects society in many ways — few of them good.

Times reporters investigated the decline of local news and what it actually means. Here’s what we found:

  • More big businesses control the narrative. The largest news source in Richmond, Calif., is owned by the Bay Area town’s largest business: Chevron. That means in a city where pollution concerns are real from the company’s refinery, its digital rag doesn’t say a damn thing, Jessica Garrison reported.
  • News that serves disenfranchised communities is ignored. Santa Ana is one of the most-Latino big cities in the United States. Twenty years ago, dozens of local semanarios (weekly papers) and all sorts of sports, entertainment and lifestyle magazines covered the goings-on of the city. Today, just two publications focused on entertainment fluff remain. I looked at how important issues affecting residents now get ignored.
  • Tech companies are intent on winning. Australia and Canada passed bills similar to what California legislators have proposed. Some money went to publishers, but tech bros created chaos by blocking news from their platforms, national correspondent Jenny Jarvie reported.
  • AI is only making things worse. AI chatbots might openly lift local journalists’ work and either pass it off as their own or mischaracterize it. “The average consumer that just wants to go check [out a restaurant], they’re probably not going to read [our article] anymore,” L.A. Taco editor Javier Cabral told Wendy Lee on AI’s effects on his scrappy indie site.
  • Even news nonprofits — long seen as a foolproof solution — are having a rough time of it: The Long Beach Post had eclipsed the 127-year-old Press-Telegram in readership and gravitas but now finds itself in tatters after nearly three-quarters of its reporters resigned over editorial and business disputes with management. Those defectors now have their own publication, the Long Beach Watchdog, James Rainey reported.
  • There are fewer reporters to hold power accountable. The people paid to objectively find out what people in power are trying to hide from you … we’re losing jobs like the Halos are losing fans, Ashley Ahn showed.

I thank you, gentle reader, for reading this newsletter, offer you a virtual high-five if you subscribe to Essential California, and gift you a digital gold star if you are a Times subscriber. And if you read this without paying us? We pardon you — and ask you to subscribe. Hey, $1 for four months is a deal anyone can afford, amirite?

Today’s top stories

 Kamala Harris speaks at a lectern

Vice President Kamala Harris campaigns at West Allis Central High School in West Allis, Wis.

(Kayla Wolf / Associated Press)

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Kamala Harris hits the trail

Coronavirus in California

How clean is your weed?

Fentanyl

  • The family of 3-year-old twins who died of a suspected fentanyl overdose is in shock. Relatives said they had no idea the boys’ mother used the opioid.
  • Their mother has been charged with murder.
  • Just last week, another toddler died of a fentanyl overdose. DCFS had trusted his mom’s friend to keep him safe

More big stories

Get unlimited access to the Los Angeles Times. Subscribe here.

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Today’s great reads

A plate of tacos is displayed at the Industrial Downtown Night Market.

A plate of tacos is displayed at the Industrial Downtown Night Market.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

How L.A. reached peak taco. To understand how Los Angeles became the world’s most taco-diverse city, let’s start with the taco truck.

Other great reads

How can we make this newsletter more useful? Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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For your downtime

Tacos at Bandito Taqueria.

Tacos at Bandito Taqueria.

(Andrea D’Agosto / For The Times)

Going out

Staying in

And finally … from our archives

Front page of the July 25, 1974 L.A. Times

On this day in history, the Supreme Court voted 8 to 0 that President Nixon had to turn over transcripts of the Watergate tapes to Special Counsel Leon Jaworski.

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team.

Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Defne Karabatur, fellow
Andrew Campa, Sunday reporter
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor and Saturday reporter
Christian Orozco, assistant editor
Stephanie Chavez, deputy metro editor
Karim Doumar, head of newsletters

Check our top stories, topics and the latest articles on latimes.com.



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California Isn’t Enforcing Its Strongest-in-the-Nation Oil Well Cleanup Law on Its Largest Oil Company

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California Isn’t Enforcing Its Strongest-in-the-Nation Oil Well Cleanup Law on Its Largest Oil Company


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Last October, California passed the nation’s strongest law to address the glut of oil and gas wells that are unplugged and ownerless, many leaking pollutants into the environment.

The legislation required that, as part of any sale or transfer of wells, the purchasing company set aside enough money in financial instruments known as bonds to cover the entire cleanup cost of low-producing wells if the companies go out of business without plugging them. It was a striking departure from the piecemeal steps taken by other state legislatures and federal agencies to reduce the number of orphan wells. California lawmakers repeatedly cited ProPublica’s work on the subject as a reason to act.

But in its first major test, California regulators sidestepped the law.

The California Geologic Energy Management Division, the state’s oil regulatory body, announced in late June that the law does not apply to the merger of California Resources Corp. and Aera Energy, two of the three companies that account for the vast majority of the state’s oil and gas production. If the law had been enforced, the deal would have provided billions of dollars in new bonds to ensure taxpayers weren’t eventually left with the cleanup bill.

Department of Conservation Director David Shabazian explained the agency’s decision in a letter to Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, the Los Angeles Democrat who sponsored the new law. The bonding requirements “do not apply to stock transfers, nor does the law make any mention of such transactions,” Shabazian wrote. In other words, because Aera is still listed as the operator of the wells, the state can’t act.

That explanation did not appease Carrillo.

“This deal is exactly why we passed AB 1167, the Orphaned Well Prevention Act,” she said in an email to ProPublica and Capital & Main. “If a company is drilling for oil in California, they should be responsible for cleaning and closing that oil well. Not enforcing the law as intended sets-up our state for a potential financial catastrophe.”

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The merger created the largest oil company in the state, with about 16,000 idle wells, which neither produce oil and gas nor are plugged and are at a higher risk of becoming orphans. That’s 40% of the total number of idle wells in the state.

“It’s an absurd interpretation of the law,” said Kyle Ferrar, who helped write AB 1167 as Western program coordinator with environmental group FracTracker Alliance. “They’re essentially creating a model to get around this bill.”

Richard Venn, a California Resources spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that the companies have plugged more than 5,000 wells and “have active and well-established programs for managing the full life cycle of wells and we have the size and financial resources to address all of our plugging obligations. The merger strengthens those resources.”

“Enormous Dereliction of Duty”

The majority of California’s remaining oil and gas production comes from western Kern County, including massive oil fields abutting Bakersfield.


Credit:
Mark Olalde/ProPublica

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In December, the California Geologic Energy Management Division wrote to the state’s oil companies notifying them that they should submit paperwork before completing “any acquisition” — agency staff bolded those words — to assist the state in determining necessary bonding levels under AB 1167. “This notice is to ensure that operators are aware of new bonding requirements that must be complied with in advance of acquiring certain wells and production facilities,” regulators wrote.

But the state concluded the California Resources and Aera merger didn’t trigger the bonding requirements because of the way it was structured.

In the state’s letter explaining regulators’ reasoning, Shabazian wrote that “if the operator of the well remains constant, changes in ownership of the operator’s holding company do not require new bonds.”

If regulators had applied the law to the merger, California Resources would have been required to put up an estimated $2.4 billion bond to guarantee Aera’s wells will be plugged, according to an analysis of state data. In comparison, that’s about eight times the total value of all outstanding cleanup bonds for all oil companies in the state.

Instead, Aera will continue operating with only a $3 million bond.

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“This particular transaction is itself tremendously consequential, potentially the most consequential transaction that the state will see,” said Kassie Siegel, a senior counsel with the environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity.

Siegel worries that the state’s “enormous dereliction of duty” opens a loophole for the industry. Regulators are “creating a roadmap for other companies to similarly evade the law,” she said.

The agency’s decision also came after Aera spent about $250,000 lobbying in California in the first quarter of the year, including on “1167 implementation,” according to the company’s lobbying disclosure form.

Neither Aera nor state regulators answered questions about the company’s lobbying.

Despite California Resources’ assertions that the company resulting from the merger is financially stable, it faces serious challenges.

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California Resources was formed when Oxy Petroleum spun off its West Coast assets, and the company has already gone through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. California Resources acknowledged in filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that the merger left it and Aera with more than $1 billion in impending cleanup costs between them. In the records, the company also suggested that some of its key assets will reach the end of their economic lives in the coming years.

Aera, meanwhile, was sold by Shell and ExxonMobil in 2022 and ended up in the hands of German asset management group IKAV, investment fund Oaktree Capital Management and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

IKAV did not respond to requests for comment, while the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Oaktree declined to answer questions.

The office of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who signed AB 1167 into law with a warning that it might need to be amended, also did not answer questions about whether he agreed with his agency’s interpretation of the legislation.

Aaron Cantú of Capital & Main contributed reporting.

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