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In-Depth: Bill would increase Cal Fire staffing for wildfire help

Would add 1,124 new firefighters
Posted at 6:22 AM, May 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-02 11:04:07-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A new bill in the California Senate would add 1,124 firefighters to Cal Fire and require the state to add even more staffing over the next two years.

SB 1062 says Cal Fire "shall maintain a standard minimum level of staffing on each of the department’s fire engines" by requiring at least three firefighters per engine. That would bring an additional 356 firefighters. The bill also requires the department to hire an additional 16 fully-staffed fuel crews, a total of 768 more firefighters.

It also asks the department to create a new, long-term staffing plan through 2030, "to meet the new era of wildfire firefighting."

"This is a main responsibility of government to keep us safe," says Sen. Brian Jones (D-San Diego). He's one of nearly a dozen co-authors of the bill. "We’re going to hire extra firefighters to make sure that we’re getting onto these fires sooner, safer, and more efficiently."

The bill has the full support of the Cal Fire Firefighters Union, who say they're operating at "1970s level staffing."

"This is a good thing coming. It gives our firefighters the relief they so desperately need," says Patrick Walker, the Vice President of the Local 2881. "Relief’s an issue because those firefighters are fighting fires for 24, 48, 72 hours with no relief. Bringing in fresh firefighters allows them to rest, start back over feeling fresh. The more firefighters on the ground, the more aggressively and quicker we can provide that firefighting."

According to information provided in the bill, Cal Fire currently only has 2.7 firefighters per engine, down from the recommended three or four.

Meanwhile, the number of prison inmates available for fire crews through the Cal Fire Conservation Camp Program is down from 4,200 a decade ago to just 1,426 in 2021.

As staff levels drop, the number and size of wildfires continue to rise.

Data from Cal Fire shows that 12 of the 20 biggest and most destructive wildfires in state history have happened since 2017.

In 2020 alone, wildfires burned more than 4.3 million acres. That number is nearly double the previous record.

"It's a year-round fire season, that's what we say now. So we need year-round staffing," says Walker. "With more firefighters on the ground, we can get the relief, we can get the firefighting force, we can get that surge capacity that we're going to need to go after it."

Increased staff can also help prevent wildfires. Walker says the extra firefighters can spend more time doing prescribed burns, vegetation management, or helping build defensible space around homes and buildings.

"This is about both prevention and suppression," says Jones. "We need to do both things at the same time and it takes more people to do that."

The bill will be in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, May 2. It would still need to pass the full Senate and the Assembly before Gov. Newsom could sign it into law.

Meanwhile, a separate Senate Constitutional Amendment, SCA 8, will alter the state's budget to pay for the extra firefighters. It would put 1% of all state revenues into the newly-created "California Fire Response Fund."

Jones hopes the bill can move quickly enough to make an impact this summer.

"Obviously we’re seeing more incredible forest fires than we’ve seen historically. And they’re spreading faster," he says. "We want to make sure that doesn't happen."

Stay with ABC 10News for updates as the bills move through the legislature.