This week’s death of a state firefighter battling a December blaze in Ventura County underscored a stark message from this year’s devastating fires: There is no end to fire season in California anymore.
Since 2004, no Cal Fire firefighter had died on duty after October in a calendar year. That changed when the so-called Thomas Fire on Thursday overtook San Diego-based engineer Cory Iverson, a 32-year-old firefighter who left behind a pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter.
His death stunned the department not only because it lost a veteran firefighter, but also because it occurred so late in the year.
“The fire season is no longer a season. It’s year round,” said Mike Lopez, president of the union that represents Cal Fire firefighters. “It’s a time of reflection during this holiday season. We’ll keep his family and his co-workers in our thoughts and prayers.”
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Iverson died fighting a fire that has claimed more than 252,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. It’s another costly catastrophe in a fire season that’s on pace to become the most expensive ever for the state, from the deadly fires in Sonoma County to this month’s blazes in Southern California.
Officials from Cal Fire and the Brown administration consider it a “new normal,” with the effects of climate change contributing to weather extremes that keep emergency responders busier, longer.
“The fire season used to be a few months in the summer, now it’s almost year-long. These fires are unprecedented. We’ve never seen anything like it. Scientists are telling us, ‘This is the kind of stuff that’s gonna happen.’ And we gotta deal with it,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired last weekend.
Brown issued a statement expressing condolences to the Iverson family.
“Anne and I are saddened by Engineer Cory Iverson’s tragic death. His bravery and years of committed service to the people of California will never be forgotten,” Brown said.
Before Iverson’s death, Lopez and others at Cal Fire had already been looking at ways for the state to hire more year-round firefighters. Today, the department has about 7,000 employees. About 2,000 of them are seasonal firefighters and foresters who normally are sent home by this time of year.
Hundreds of those seasonal firefighters had already been laid off by the time wildfires broke out in Southern California. Almost all of them had been stationed in the northern half of the state, where rain had fallen and decreased the risk of another fire breaking out, Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said.
Cal Fire’s southern region, meanwhile, had retained most of its seasonal firefighters through this month, according to Cal Fire. It laid off about three dozen firefighters who had reached a cap on the amount of hours they’re allowed to work as temporary employees, and several others who left for personal reasons.
After the Southern California fires spread, Cal Fire called back about 150 of the seasonal firefighters it had laid off for the year. They’re available to reinforce crews working the sprawling Central Coast fires.
Cal Fire and Brown’s administration had taken steps over the past five years to recognize the lengthening fire season by allowing the department to keep temporary firefighters on duty longer. It now plans to keep about 50 more engines on duty through December than in previous years.
The department changed its model of seasonal staffing, too, sending seasonal firefighters home when fire risk decreased instead of sticking to a plan on a calendar. Cal Fire commanders speak regularly in the fall, discussing conditions as they assess when it’s safe to send their seasonal workers home.
“It’s very coordinated; it’s very strategic,” Upton said.
She could not say whether the department planned to ask for a budget increase that would allow it to hire more year-round firefighters, but acknowledged that department leaders are looking at how they manage entry-level firefighters.
“We are evaluating our seasonal classifications,” she said. “It deserves our continued scrutiny.”
Before Iverson’s death, Lopez said the Cal Fire union was preparing to push for an increase in staffing, partly because of the seemingly never-ending fire season.
“The model Cal Fire uses now is antiquated,” he said. “It doesn’t protect the citizens we need to protect and it needs to be changed,” he said.
The state has spent more than $601 million fighting wildfires since July 1, the beginning of state government’s budget year. That’s about $150 million more than the Legislature budgeted, meaning the state probably will pull from its reserves to pay for the emergencies.
The state spent about $600 million fighting wildfires in 2015-16 budget, Upton said, putting this year’s fires on pace to eclipse that sum.
On Friday, the fire that killed Iverson was considered 35 percent contained. Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott at a Thursday press conference mourned Iverson, and then turned his attention back to the firefighters on the fire lines.
“We must keep our focus on the fire,” he said. “The communities we are protecting are depending on us, and we will not fail.”