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Twitter User Katana Martina @katanamartina/CalFire

State Firefighters Urge Hiring Boost Ahead Of Wildfire Season

Holly Quan
June 17, 2019 - 1:30 pm

As Gov. Gavin Newsom mulls over a budget that grapples with wildfire costs, the union representing 6,000 state firefighters is running television ads in Sacramento urging homeowners to create defensible space around their properties.

On the surface the commercial may be helpful to people living in areas susceptible to fast-moving wildfires, but underneath there's a more ominous message that the state's overworked and understaffed firefighters may not be able put out the flames before calamity strikes. 

The ad starts off with a friendly, helpful reminder: "Planning ahead, we can help keep your family safe." It encourages homeowners to cut down trees within 30 feet of their homes but the underlying message is that residents need to start relying on themselves because firefighters are stretched thin.

Tim Edwards,  president of Local 2881, the union that represents over 6,000 Cal Fire firefighters, said he's already getting calls from members stressed out over the coming fire season and the prospect of leaving their families for potentially months at a time.

"At the Camp Fire, for example, we had 44 members lose their homes," he said to KCBS Radio. "Wasn't able to get off to go home and be with their families because they had to continue fighting the fires because of our staffing levels."

Newsom's budget adds 13 engines to the fleet and 131 firefighters but the union says it needs 18 more engines to get to 1974 levels when staffing and equipment were at their peak. Another 1,000 personnel are needed to be able to give crews their recommended rest breaks, according to Edwards. 

"After 14 days, try to get someone a day off but that's a day off in our hotel if that happens. Not away from the fire or with their family. Then after 21 days, they say to give them 2 days off," he said. "Well, that's two days off in a hotel on the fire, assigned to the fire, then back to the fire."

Suicides and divorces are on the rise and the state needs to hire more firefighters to preserve the mental health of his members, Edwards said.  Last weekend, 5,000 acres burned across the state without even being at the height of critical fire season.