California will hire 393 more firefighters in anticipation of an upcoming wildfire season that has the potential to be even worse than last year’s, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday.
The long rainy season promoted heavy growth of grass and other underbrush in which fires can start and spread once the vegetation dries out. Cal Fire and the state firefighter union have said the state needs more firefighters to face the escalating threat.
Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday authorizing more seasonal firefighters to boost staffing on a third of Cal Fire’s 340 engines.
“I think that’s going to help morale, it’s going to help with rotation, it’s certainly going to help with women and man power as it relates to suppression efforts and mitigation efforts,” Newsom told reporters in Colfax, where he toured a site where workers have been clearing vegetation to reduce potential kindling if a fire sparks in the area.
The newly announced hires will add to the state’s force of about 6,000 firefighters, a number the Cal Fire Local 2881 union has pointed out is lower than the department’s peak staffing in 1975, when fire seasons were shorter and the state was responsible for less territory.
California wildfires in 2018 killed more than 100 people, destroyed more than 22,000 buildings and burned over 1.8 million acres of land, making it the worst fire year on record, trailed closely by 2017.
Cal Fire and other fire agencies have responded to 105 fires larger than 10 acres this year, which have burned about 37,000 acres and destroyed seven structures, according to Cal Fire data. Eight active fires were listed on the department’s website Wednesday, the largest being an 11,000-acre fire in Modoc.
“Fires are going to start to get bigger and less controllable from here on out until we get to winter rains,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told reporters Wednesday. He said the fire season could prove “large and damaging.”
A lack of available firefighters has meant those on the force often stayed on fires for stretches of 45 to 60 days, Porter told legislators earlier this year. The work exhausted firefighters while taxing their mental health and morale, he said.
Local 2881 President Tim Edwards has said suicides and divorces are up among firefighters, and that he has received calls this summer from anxious firefighters ahead of what is expected to be another long fire season.
The state paid firefighters $207 million in overtime last year, more than any other department.
The state’s annual budget added 13 new fire engines and 131 firefighters along with new helicopters, planes and fire detection cameras as part of $1 billion in increased fire spending.
The union was pushing for the state to add at least 31 engines to match 1975 staffing levels. The union’s push for more staffing included a run of commercials in Sacramento in June saying firefighters were overworked and people should take steps to protect their homes.