California must improve conditions for the workers who help prevent fires

The landscape was left denuded after the vegetation burned during the Camp Fire in Concow. Storms and debris flows have delayed officials’ efforts to allow thousands back into evacuation zones.
The landscape was left denuded after the vegetation burned during the Camp Fire in Concow. Storms and debris flows have delayed officials’ efforts to allow thousands back into evacuation zones.

California’s latest mega-fire disasters have refocused attention on the state’s challenge of the future: how to manage forests and scrubland so wildfires will be less frequent and catastrophic. But often missing from the discussion are the underpaid, marginalized laborers who make up much of the state’s wildlands management workforce.

The work of thinning forests, clearing brush, replanting timberland and restoring ecosystems involves backbreaking work with chainsaws and other tools. These jobs typically come with low pay, dangerous work conditions, no job security, little labor law enforcement and scarce training for increasingly complex tasks.

These workers get little attention partly because of the highly visible role of the state’s firefighters – especially the full-time employees of Cal Fire and local fire agencies who deservedly have good wages, benefits packages and collective bargaining contracts.

Many wildlands management workers are immigrants who, like the state’s farmworkers, are easily exploited. They travel to remote mountain areas and work in heat, rain and snow, often for out-of-state contractors and subcontractors. The limited data that is available on these workers shows injuries are common, wage theft is rampant and labor law enforcement is spotty. California thinners, tree-planters and other wildlands management workers had a median hourly wage of $10.16 last year, the lowest of all 746 occupations in the state, according to federal data.

The state doesn’t require any specific training, doesn’t set standards for improving skills and doesn’t adequately protect workers’ safety and health.


Lawmakers should consider several changes.

The state could use its existing power in public procurement to set labor standards on contracts for thinning, tree-planting, and vegetation management.

Robert Collier mug.jpg
Robert Collier

The state could model wildlands management worker training programs after Cal Fire’s apprenticeship programs, which provide rigorous training, wage increases for new skills and a hiring pathway for underrepresented communities. The Lomakatsi Restoration Project provides another promising model. The forestry nonprofit works with communities and Native American tribes in southern Oregon and Northern California to restore forests in an ecologically sound way, and provides workers with advanced skills in forest stewardship.

Community-based occupational health nonprofits and worker centers need to be involved. Workers need know-your-rights training to ensure that labor and safety laws are enforced at remote job sites and despite language barriers.

Carl Wilmsen mug.jpg
Carl Wilmsen

Cooperation from the federal government is also necessary. More than half of the state’s forests are US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management properties, where the state government has limited authority. The Trump administration has proposed cutting the appropriation for wildland fire prevention nationwide by 11 percent, which bodes ill for California.

As the recovery gets underway, Californians should remember the invisible workers who could help make future wildfires less nightmarish. We owe it to those workers, and to our fire-endangered communities, to give them the resources and training they need.

Robert Collier is a research and policy specialist at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, and Carl Wilmsen is executive director of the Northwest Forest Worker Center.