CAL FIRE to add more firefighters, engines, dozers, and helicopters

Will add 1,503 personnel, 27 engines, 4 helicopters, and 10 dozers

CAL FIRE dozer and transport
File photo of a new dozer and transport for the Nevada Yuba Placer Unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. CAL FIRE photo, March, 2019.

The new budget for California signed into law June 30 by Governor Gavin Newsom includes a massive increase for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2022.

The budget authorizes 11,293 positions, a 13 percent increase of 1,503 personnel. 

To add to the 12 new S70i Firehawk helicopters that were funded a couple of years ago, they will spend $99 million to purchase an additional 4 to help maintain continuous flight operations during critical fire weather conditions when frontline helicopters are due for maintenance. 

In addition, $45 million is set aside annually for the next three years to secure exclusive use (EU) contracts for 10 additional helitankers while awaiting the federal delivery of seven former Coast Guard C-130 air tankers that over the last 9 years have been waiting for the US Air Force to convert them into retardant-dropping air tankers.

CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler told Fire Aviation in March that the incorporation of the seven former Coast Guard C-130 aircraft into the state’s air tanker fleet might be pushed back to 2024 due the pandemic/endemic and supply chain issues. This is in spite of the agency’s efforts in attempting to facilitate movement in the project. He said they had hoped to see some of the C-130s flying on fires this year. CAL FIRE is working with the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and the contractor who will install the retardant delivery system, Coulson Aviation.

California Conservation Corps (CCC) and California Military Department (CMD) Hand Crews 
Appropriated is $104 million and 238 positions starting now, and $50 million and 270 positions phased in over five years. Eight additional year-round hand crews will be added and 16 seasonal hand crews will be converted to year-round.

Four existing seasonal CAL FIRE/CCC hand crews will convert to year-round staffing in July 2022 and the personnel for the remaining two transitioned seasonal hand crews will be hired beginning January 2023. On these hand crews, two temporary Fire Captains (FC) per hand crew are replaced by three permanent FCs and three new FAEs are added to each hand crew. In total, 18 FCs and 18 FAEs will staff all six hand crews.

Ten existing seasonal CMD hand crews will be converted to year-round and four year-round CMD hand crews will be added for statewide response and fuels reduction projects.

Engines and Dozers
$36 million will be used to acquire surge capacity fire engines and bulldozers. This will add two additional engines in each of the 21 Units and six contract counties, plus 10 additional bulldozers. These resources will be available to be staffed during times of resource drawdown and critical fire activity.

Approximately $9 million will be used to hire support staff for the Firehawk program and positions for the contract EU helicopters,

July through December Fire Protection Augmentation
One-time funding of $83.1 million General Fund is available to augment fire protection resources from July through December 2022 given trends associated with climate change and current drought conditions, increasing fire severity and size, and declining inmate camp populations. It will be used to extend the staffing of 16 additional CAL FIRE firefighter hand crews through December 2022, plus support staff and training.

Highlights from the 1977 CDF Fire Control Handbook

Looking back 45 years at large fire organization charts, “support teams”, and hair requirements in California

CDF Fire Control Handbook, 1977
Cover of the 1977 California Department of Forestry Fire Control Handbook.

Chief John Hawkins shared with us a copy of the California Department of Forestry’s Fire Control Handbook, 1977 edition. The agency was known as CDF before they became the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE.

It is a .pdf copy of Handbook 5600 with a few amendments around 1979 and 1980 to address the agency’s limited trial of the Incident Command System (ICS) in their Region VI starting in 1978, and the planned California-wide implementation of the ICS in 1983. The entire document can be downloaded here  (large 10.2 Mb file).

Firefighters of a certain age will most likely enjoy skimming through the pages of this 45-year old document.

CDF 1977 Fire Control Handbook
From page 51 in the CDF 1977 Fire Control Handbook, amended December, 1980.

The 324-page book contains many operational guides, as well as information about aviation, safety, pre-attack planning, “support teams”, and flood control operations. Much of it is timeless, but there have also been many changes. It is interesting to compare the 45-year old policies with current procedures.

But going back even further, let’s take a look at fire organizations before ICS began to be adopted in the 1980s:

forest fire organization, forest service, 1953
Two-Sector Fire. From Principles of Organization for Forest Fire Suppression, US Forest Service, 1953.
Organization on the, Battlement Creek Fire, July 1976
Organization on the Battlement Creek Fire, July, 1976. From the report.

My career was with the US Forest Service and National Park Service. The CDF organization from the Fire Control Handbook has at least one feature unfamiliar to me, the “Attack” function, which was called the Line Function by the USFS. It is now labeled “Operations” in the ICS. In the USFS it was led by a Line Boss in the pre-ICS days. “Service” became Logistics, and in the Planning section the Maps and Records Officer was replaced by two units, Resources Unit and Situation Unit. Sectors became Divisions, and a new position was inserted between the Planning Section Chief and Division Boss: Branch Director. There were numerous changes in Service/Logistics.

CDF Fire Organization Structure, 1979
CDF Fire Organization Structure, 1979.

And then there is the current Incident Command System structure; keep in mind, you only fill the positions that are needed.

Continue reading “Highlights from the 1977 CDF Fire Control Handbook”

CAL FIRE dealing with long shifts and mental health issues

Redding, CA sunset CAL FIRE engines.
Sunset in Redding, California, August 10, 2014. A strike team of CAL FIRE engines assigned to the Eiler Fire is in the foreground. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The federal land management agencies are not the only agencies facing problems with retention, recruitment, and mental health issues. The staffing system for the  California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, calls for their firefighters to work 72 hours a week. But in recent years vacant positions have sometimes led to personnel being forced to work overtime, sometimes for many days at a time, 24 hours a day.

CAL FIRE 2881 President Tim Edwards represents nearly 5,400 CAL FIRE firefighters. He told CBS13 shifts that used to be 72 hours a week have become 30, 40, or 50 days without a break. Crews, he said, are unable to be relieved because of the short staffing.

A bill has been drafted that would appropriate $220 million to increase staffing and reduce forced overtime. If passed by California’s legislature the Fixing The Firefighter Shortage Act, SB 1062, would fund more than 1,100 additional  state firefighters, 18 more engine crews, and a year-long study to figure out staffing needs in the future.

A CAL FIRE spokesperson told CBS13 three weeks ago that stations would be fully staffed in a week. The spokesperson added the agency does not endorse the Fixing The Firefighter Shortage Act, and that it is only supported by CAL FIRE Local 2881.

In 2009 a series of articles about wildland fire won a Pulitzer Prize for authors Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times. Ms. Cart who now works for CAL MATTERS wrote a piece last week for the publication about how PTSD is affecting CAL FIRE’s workforce. The video below posted June 15 appears to be a product of their reporting.

Ms. Cart points out that about 10 percent of CAL FIRE’s workforce quit last year.

Below is an excerpt from the article.

California’s firefighting agency has been slow to react to a mounting mental health crisis within its ranks as firefighters around the state say CAL FIRE has failed to get them what they need — including a sustainable workload, easier access to workers’ comp benefits and more counselors.

While climate change is driving enduring drought and ferocious fires ravaging California, nature can’t be blamed for all of CAL FIRE’s problems: The state’s fire service, which prides itself in quickly putting out wildfires, has failed to extinguish a smoldering mental health problem among its ranks.

Many firefighters told CalMatters they are fatigued and overwhelmed, describing an epidemic of post-traumatic stress in their fire stations. Veterans say they are contemplating leaving the service, which would deplete the agency of their decades of experience. Some opened up about their suicidal thoughts, while others — an unknown number since CAL FIRE doesn’t track it — already have taken their own lives.

New Director of CAL FIRE said they may have up to 10 additional helicopters in 2022

Director Joe Tyler, during his first interview since he started the job

CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler
CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler making the keynote address at the Aerial Firefighting conference in San Diego, March 22, 2022. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(This article was first published at Fire Aviation)

In his first interview since he started as the new Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Joe Tyler told Fire Aviation on Wednesday that the state of California could have up to 10 additional firefighting helicopters in 2022 to assist firefighters on the ground.

Director Tyler said the current approved budget enables CAL FIRE to issue 120-day exclusive use contracts, based on fire potential, for up to three large air tankers, eight Type 1 helicopters, two Type 2 helicopters, and two lead planes. That budget authority lasts until the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2022 and the Director’s staff is working on implementing the option now. The Governor’s proposed budget for the following fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022 includes exclusive use contract funding over the next three years for 10 Type 1 helicopters, but that budget has not yet been passed by the legislature.

CAL FIRE also has access to a San Diego County Type one helicopter through a cooperative agreement.

These numbers are in addition to the 10 helicopters already operated by CAL FIRE.

Director Tyler told Fire Aviation that he was offered the Director position on March 3 and he started the next day. He is overseeing an appropriated budget of $3.7 billion and more than 9,600 civilian and uniformed staff who responded to more than half a million emergencies in 2021. His predecessor, Thom Porter, retired in December.

Director Tyler is a 31-year veteran of CAL FIRE and most recently served as the Deputy Director of Fire Protection, overseeing statewide fire protection operations and cooperative fire protection. He began his career with CAL FIRE in 1991 working in several counties and programs throughout California and has an extensive background in executive level operations and programs. Prior to his appointment as Deputy Director, Tyler served as the Assistant Deputy Director of Fire Protection with oversight of law enforcement/civil cost recovery, fire protection operations, aviation management, tactical air operations, and mobile equipment.

“It is my commitment to take care of our people,” Director Tyler said in the interview Wednesday. “The health and wellness of the people who work for us are of utmost importance. As I have said to our people, they are our greatest asset.”

Director Tyler said the incorporation of the seven former Coast Guard C-130 aircraft into the state’s air tanker fleet might be pushed back to 2024 due the pandemic/endemic and supply chain issues. This is in spite of the agency’s efforts in attempting to facilitate movement in the project. He said they had hoped to see some of the C-130s flying on fires this year. CAL FIRE is working with the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and the contractor who will install the retardant delivery system, Coulson Aviation.

“We have working groups that meet weekly between those groups to determine where we are at in status and we have executive steering committees that meet quarterly,” the Director said. “The last update that was just given to us in this last month, was that Coulson Aviation working with the United States Air Force and their engineers were going through the preliminary design review of the retardant delivery system and things were looking good to be able to continue to move forward.”

Bipartisan group of state Senators sponsor bill to boost CAL FIRE by adding more than 1,100 firefighters

Caldor Fire strike team engines
Two strike teams of  CAL FIRE engines, including 9271C, preparing for their shift on the Caldor Fire Sept. 3, 2021. CAL FIRE Amador-El Dorado Unit photo.

A group of Republicans and Democrats in California’s Senate are sponsoring legislation that would add 1,124 firefighters to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Currently the agency has about 7,200 uniformed personnel.

“The men and women who are the heart of CAL FIRE would never say this out loud, but they’re at the breaking point,” state Senator Mike McGuire said at a news conference in Sacramento Friday. “What’s been happening over this past decade in the state of California with the rise of megafires, and simply not enough staffing, is not sustainable.”

The legislation would add 356 full-time and 768 seasonal personnel and require that every engine be staffed by at least 3 firefighters. CAL FIRE engines currently only average around 2.7 per engine. One of the greatest needs is hand crews. In 2020 there were 1,426 inmate firefighters in state camps, down from 4,200 a decade ago.

The proposed legislation has seen little opposition.

From the California Globe:

Wildfire fighters praised the bill, saying that long stretches of overtime with no breaks had been wearing thin on them, with the bill allowing some breathing space.

“People think we’re lucky because we largely don’t have to work for months at a time,” a Cal Fire firefighter who wished to remain anonymous told the Globe on Friday. “But, like football players or other professionals whose work comes around a certain time of the year, we are still working. We’re training, learning new equipment, working out to maintain strength levels needed, teaching rookies, going over practice scenarios, and, if the firefighters are more local, even being “loaned out” to other wildfire hotbeds like Australia.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kirk.

CAL FIRE to spend $80 million to bring on firefighters earlier than usual this spring

They will also form 24 new hand crews

New CAL FIRE Firefighter 1 hand crews
File photo of new CAL FIRE Firefighter 1 hand crews, August, 2020. CAL FIRE photo.

California Governor Newsom has approved $80 million to hire or bring on earlier than usual a total of 1,399 additional firefighters to bolster CAL FIRE’s fuels management and wildfire response efforts the rest of this fiscal year which ends June 30, 2021.

This Emergency Fund authorization includes a surge of 1,256 seasonal firefighters. This funding will provide fire crew and fire engine staffing, augments eight currently understaffed existing fire crews ahead of the summer, and allows the early hiring and training of fire crews for fuels management. The funding would also provide twelve new CAL FIRE crews, and twelve new Conservation Corps crews.

Further, the state will onboard 24 seasonal firefighters for California National Guard hand crews who support CAL FIRE’s fuels management work.

The funding will also create the opportunity to bring on 119 helitack firefighters earlier than usual this year to allow them time to train and be operationally ready by May, 2021. This includes the orientation and operation of the new S-70i CAL FIRE Hawk helicopters that will operate from four helitack bases.

Proposals for the next fiscal year

For the Fiscal Year that begins in July, 2021 the Governor proposes a $143 million General Fund to support 30 new fire crews, and also includes $48 million to continue phasing in the new S-70i helicopters and large air tankers.

The Governor proposes $1 billion to support California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan. The initiative sets forth a strategy to increase the pace and scale of forest and wildland management to meet the state’s target of completing projects on 500,000 acres annually by 2025 and expanding the use of prescribed fire. The plan centers on building fuel breaks around vulnerable communities, expanding home hardening, defensible space and preparedness planning to create wildfire-adapted communities, and sustaining the economic vitality of rural forested areas.

The article was modified to indicate that the twelve new Conservation Corps crews being established are not Conservation Camp (inmate) crews.