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Cal Fire Rushing To Hire Hundreds As Fire Season Heats Up

Two firefighters spraying water on dry vegetation during training.
Firefighters with Cal Fire San Diego practice a progressive hose lay during training.
(Courtesy Cal Fire)
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With scorching temperatures this week and a long fire season ahead, Cal Fire is planning to add hundreds of firefighters.

But at least one Southern California Cal Fire unit is seeing more job offers rejected than usual. A tight labor market, the dangerous nature of the work, and entry level pay are challenges for agencies that employ firefighters as they staff up for fire season.

Cal Fire operates 356 fire engines, and 291 of those are seasonal. Positions that staff those seasonal engines typically begin in the spring and can last up to nine months, depending on the intensity of the fire season. Typically, fire season starts in May and lasts through the fall, according to the state, but climate change has meant fire seasons that begin earlier and last later.

Station captain Todd Davison at Cal Fire’s San Bernardino Unit said he plans to hire 220 seasonal firefighters. But making those hires has been difficult.

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“We’ve noticed a lot more individuals rejecting job offers from the department,” Davison told LAist. The challenge is happening as unemployment has steadily fallen over the past two years.

The U.S. Forest Service, which fights fires on federal lands, has lost more than 1,000 employees in California between 2019 and 2021. The entry level pay and dangers of the job give some potential firefighters second thoughts. At CalFire, training injuries pose serious risks to some seasonal employees, as LAist has reported.

In recent years, as the number of acres burned has shattered records, the burden on firefighters has been enormous. In 2020, Cal Fire was unable to fill roughly 7,900 requests for fire engines, 900 requests for bulldozers, and 600 requests for helicopters. Compounding the issue, fewer incarcerated people are working on fire crews, due to changes in sentencing, according to a recent legislative analysis.

Weather conditions aren’t helping. While December was wet, 2022 has been dry. “We’re on track to dry out and it means that fire season most likely will be earlier,” said Kristan Lund, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

A bill in the statehouse could impact the way Cal Fire staffs fire seasons in the future. SB 1062, introduced by Sen. Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles), seeks to set minimum staffing levels at Cal Fire, and to add 768 firefighters to staff 16 additional fuel crews.

“What’s been happening over the past decade in this state – with the rise of these megafires and not enough staffing – is simply not sustainable with the numbers of firefighters that are on the lines now,” Stern said. The bill advanced out of a Senate committee on Tuesday.

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