(KRON) — As wildfire season heats up across California, a shortage of firefighters has experts focusing on prevention when it comes to fire mitigation efforts.
The wildfires our state faces have been growing larger, according to Matt Dias, the President of California Forestry Association, “We’re having these fires that are increasing in size and scope and level of destruction. There’s no doubt that the size and severity and speed at which these fires are burning, that in many cases once a fire gets out of control, our staffs are outmanned,” Dias told KRON4.
The size and scope of the fires isn’t the only problem fire crews are facing. Crews that battle wildfires often include firefighters with CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service, but in recent years the pay disparity between the two branches has been more significant.
“On the forest service side they are having recruitment issues due to low pay. This means the federal side of firefighters is very low,” said the fire coordinator for Northern California Fire Coop Association and retired CalFire Battalion Chief, Darin Quigley. Dias says that the federal teams are understaffed by up to 50% in some cases, and CalFire has been down about 100 hand crews.
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Quigley says that CalFire pays better than many of the federal fire positions. President Biden increased federal firefighter pay from $13 to $15 per hour in 2022. However, Quigley says that might not be enough.
“It’s still not much considering the job they are doing,” he said.
The high cost of living in California means that the updated federal pay barely meets minimum wage requirements in the state. Many of the federal firefighter roles are also seasonal, meaning they don’t come with benefits like health care or retirement funds, cutting the value of the positions even further.
One way that California is battling fires is by employing military support.
“Engaging with military assets is not a new idea, but it’s typically only employed when fires get out of hand,” Dias said. Earlier this month, the California Office of Emergency Services announced the creation of Team Blaze, a military wildfire strike team.
Though California is creating new ways to respond to fires amidst the firefighter shortage, Dias says that prevention is going to be key, “We’re looking at having the preparedness drive the narrative,” he said. Quigley agrees, as he has a very specific history with these fires, and he takes preparation very seriously now.
“I lost my house to one of these fires in 2014. I rebuilt in the same spot, but now I’m super vigilant on doing my own fuel reductions. I made sure my house was built to the correct standards with fire-resistant siding and windows. I don’t allow bark or plantable material around my structure to keep fuels lows. Certainly we need to be more diligent as a society to take care of our own places.”Darin Quigley
In July KRON4 reported on another way to protect your home from a blaze: encouraging moist trees to grow around the perimeter. Quigley says that these mitigation efforts can be the difference between your home surviving a wildfire or not. He says that those who don’t fireproof are paying the price.
“We’re not seeing a lot of home survivals in the McKinney Fire because many of the homes have not been fireproofed in any way,” Quigley said.