Aug. 4—As California’s wildfire season ramps up, the number of federal firefighters in the state is down — way down — plummeting to its lowest level in years, despite pledges by fire officials to have boosted the ranks before a potentially busy summer.
The U.S. Forest Service, which operates the nation’s largest wildland fire force, entered the summer months with about 25% fewer firefighters in California than it had planned for, according to federal records obtained by The Chronicle. This translates into nearly 1,300 unfilled jobs.
The lack of staffing means less capacity to put out fires and protect people and property. It comes as the state has seen record burning over the past two years and, with the continuing drought, remains poised for another difficult year. Recently, crews have been tested by the still-out-of-control McKinney Fire, which exploded in the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border and has killed at least four people, as well as by a pair of big blazes in and around Yosemite National Park.
While Forest Service administrators say they sought to do more hiring during the offseason to deal with the onslaught of fire, they acknowledge their efforts fell short, citing factors largely beyond their control.
“We have struggled to fill positions in some areas of the country, especially in the Pacific Northwest and California, where the labor pool is low and pay isn’t as competitive as we would like it to be,” said Michelle Burnett, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, in a statement to The Chronicle.
Staffing, which has never been easy for the agency, began to be a problem two years ago. Many employees decided to move on from the manually difficult and often time-intensive work of firefighting during the coronavirus pandemic and after fatigue set in from California’s increasingly long fire seasons.
The state’s high cost of living is part of the reason. Entry-level wages for Forest Service firefighters is $15 an hour, barely in keeping with California’s minimum wage and much less than the more than $20 an hour that new employees can make at the state’s Cal Fire agency.
Currently, the Forest Service has about 3,700 permanent and temporary employees who at least partially work on fire suppression in the Pacific Southwest Region, which is almost entirely California — it also includes Hawaii. The numbers were obtained by The Chronicle from the Forest Service through an information request.
The agency’s target for the region this year was 5,000 total employees, which was how many people were on the job three years earlier, records show. Last year, just under 4,000 worked at peak season.
The shortage, say current and former firefighters, has left holes on hand crews, engine teams, hotshot units, smoke jumper squads and dispatch rosters at many of California’s 18 national forests. These sites make up the bulk of California’s forested lands.
The Forest Service oversees firefighting on its lands and it helps the state’s Cal Fire battle flames on state and private property. The agency gets help from Cal Fire, too, which has seen its staffing rise with recent budget surpluses to close to 8,000 employees, but the Forest Service can’t count on its partner to patch its gaps.
The lack of bandwidth extends beyond firefighting to the forest management work done in the offseason that helps keep fires from burning in the first place.
“The big question is: Do we have the competency and trained federal response that we’ve had in the past? Absolutely not,” said Kelly Martin, a former fire manager who worked for the Forest Service and National Park Service, including 14 years in Yosemite, and now advocates for firefighters as president of the group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
Most firefighters agree that pay is at the heart of the staffing problem.
At the urging of California lawmakers, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, President Biden last year boosted entry-level pay of Forest Service firefighters from $13.45 per hour to $15. The $1 trillion infrastructure law has since provided money to raise wages further, up 50% more or a maximum increase of $20,000 for both new and veteran employees, for two years.
A sweeping package of drought and wildfire bills approved last week by the House, but less certain to be acted on by the Senate, would make at least a portion of these pay increases permanent. The iffy legislation also includes first-ever mental health leave for federal firefighters, expanded eligibility for hazard pay and the elimination of overtime pay caps.
Forest Service officials have said better compensation, if it becomes permanent, would go a long way toward hiring and retaining employees. Many of the agency’s former firefighters, if they haven’t left the field entirely, have gone to work for Cal Fire, city fire departments or Pacific Gas and Electric Co., all of which have historically paid more for similar jobs.
Until enough people can be recruited by the Forest Service, the agency plans to continue trying to fill holes by bringing in firefighters from other parts of the country — the federal workforce is slim nationwide, too, but not as much as in California. The Forest Service is also contracting with local fire departments and private fire companies for help.
Mariposa County Supervisor Rosemarie Smallcombe, who represents a part of the state that burned in the Washburn and Oak fires in and around Yosemite, says firefighters have been very effective at containing the blazes. She worries, however, this will change if the fire season escalates in late summer and fall, as it has the two previous years.
The increase in wildfire, experts say, is due to the buildup of vegetation in forests after decades of fire suppression combined with the warming and drying climate.
“Given the number and scale of the fires we’ve been looking at over the past two or three years, I’m afraid that we will have a fire like (the Oak and Washburn fires) but where the resources are elsewhere in the state and the response is slow,” Smallcombe said.
“It scares the heck out of me,” she added. “And it’s not just me. It’s my colleagues in other Sierra counties. We all worry about this.”
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander
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