The State Worker

California has 400 more firefighters this year. Is that enough to battle its wildfires?

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California state firefighters in the last two years had to spend weeks at a time fighting the worst fires in the state’s history, often to the detriment of their family lives and mental health.

They haven’t had to do that this year, giving them more rest ahead of the season’s first major fires unfolding in Northern and Southern California, according to Cal Fire.

“We haven’t really been tested this year that much,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said Monday.

The department has more resources, too.

It added about 400 more seasonal firefighters after Gov. Gavin Newsom authorized additional hires for this year in a July executive order. The hiring boost, combined with a late start to this year’s fire season, could mean fewer firefighters spend family-straining 45- to 60-day stretches on fires they faced the last two years.

September and October historically are the worst fire months in California, McLean said. By this time last year, 632,000 acres in Cal Fire’s coverage area had burned. This year, 74,385 acres have burned, he said.

“They did have a fairly easy summer, so they’re not totally burnt out from running back to back fires,” said Tim Edwards, president of the union that represents Cal Fire firefighters, Local 2881. “But right now they’re going into the first full week of (the Kincade) fire, so we’ll see how they do in the second week.”

In the last two years, 100-degree heat dried out California forests in the fall. This year, temperatures were lower and more snow and rain fell in the winter and spring.

The number of acres burned in Cal Fire’s coverage area grew to about 876,000 by the time last year’s fire season was over, out of 1.8 million acres burned in the state. If projections hold, fires would burn around 100,000 acres this year in Cal Fire’s area, and somewhere around 250,000 across the state, McLean said.

But those are just projections. Last year, the season’s worst fire, the Camp Fire, started Nov. 8.

1,100 firefighters on Kincade

“We are going to need to have widespread statewide rain before this is over,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told reporters Monday. “We are poised to continue this.”

“We are fully capable and ready to respond to all of the state’s fire emergencies plus going through this part of the season,” Porter said. “I want you to feel very confident that the fire service system and emergency response system is ready for California’s emergencies going into the rest of this fire season.”

Porter said Newsom’s additions to the firefighting force improved readiness.

The state spent about $712 million from a wildfire emergency fund last year, McLean said. The state paid firefighters $207 million in overtime last year, more than any other department. So far this year, Cal Fire has spent about $106 million from the emergency fund out of its $691 million budget, he said.

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Cal Fire is responsible for 31 million acres of land around the state, McLean said. As fires pop up, difficult decisions sometimes must be made about where to direct firefighters and equipment. High-ranking staff who respond have authority to make those decisions, and Cal Fire draws on help from local fire agencies and from other states.

About 1,100 Cal Fire firefighters are fighting the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, making up just a portion of the roughly 4,100 people fighting the fire, McLean said.

While the big fires get the most notice, Cal Fire regularly keeps small fires from becoming big fires, he said.

He said the department is keeping 95 percent of the fires it responds to to 10 acres or less.

“We’re very successful in the background that people don’t understand,” he said.

More Cal Fire firefighters, engines

During major fires, firefighters are scheduled to work for 24 hours, then have 24 hours off. They work that schedule for 21 days, then get two days off, then return to the fires, McLean said.

California wildfires in 2018 killed more than 100 people and destroyed more than 22,000 buildings, making it the worst fire year on record, trailed closely by 2017.

Local 2881 President Tim Edwards has said suicides and divorces are up among firefighters, and that he received calls this summer from anxious firefighters expecting the worst from the season to come.

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Newsom’s state budget added 13 new fire engines and 131 permanent Cal Fire staff positions along with new helicopters, planes and fire detection cameras as part of $1 billion in increased fire spending for this year.

McLean said most of the 131 positions have been filled. The new engines have been ordered but not yet delivered, he said.

Edwards said the new hires would help California get through a relatively normal fire year, but not a year like the last two. He said the union is preparing to advocate for more permanent firefighters and engines in next year’s budget.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.