Review of Discovery Channel’s CAL FIRE series

The limited series premiered Sunday night

Firefighters responding Apple Fire
Firefighters responding to the Apple Fire. Discovery Channel.

I knew the Discovery Channel’s new series, CAL FIRE, was going to be interesting when the Sunday night premier episode started with a close up of the CAL FIRE director describing his greatest regret.

Thom Porter, CAL FIRE Director"My greatest regret in this job is the time I didn't spend with my family. It's hard to describe to somebody why mom or dad can't be there. We run into places that people should't be. And we do it selflessly as if they're our family members. This job is all encompassing. Firefighting is about sacrifice." Thom Porter, Director of CAL FIRE.

The limited series was filmed by camera crews and reporters who embedded, at least in episode 1, with engine crews. Presumably they went through basic fire training and were outfitted with personal protective equipment since they at times were shoulder to shoulder on the fire line with firefighters who had to tell the camera operator to “watch yourself.”

Apple Fire, Engine 3175

The first engine featured was 3175 in Riverside County, California. Engineer Aaron Dudley is on screen often, talking about his family and what it is like to work for 72 hours on a wildfire.

“I could get a regular job, but I love this one. I definitely could not have peace of mind out there without strong family support.”

The camera was rolling in the station when the crew was dispatched to the Apple Fire which started near Cherry Valley July 31, five or ten miles north of San Jacinto. It eventually burned more than 38,000 acres. Cameras mounted inside the engine filmed the crew and recorded their conversations as they drove to the fire.

After they arrived and worked for a while, the engine ran out of water so they protected a structure using the resident’s garden hose.

Several days after the fire started cameras captured crews igniting a large backfire out ahead of the east side to prevent it from spreading into the Morongo Valley.

Firefighters backfire Apple Fire
Firefighters igniting back fire on the Apple Fire. Discovery Channel

“Our objective is to hold it right here at this dozer line,” explained Captain David Mendoza. “So instead of having 10 feet of protection, we’re going to have half a mile of protection.”

At one point the back fire was burning more intensely than desired, so they had a helicopter drop water from a fairly high altitude — not to put it out, but to slow the spread and decrease the intensity, making it easier to maintain control.

Ponderosa Fire, Engine 47

A camera crew was also in Northern California’s Shasta County as Engine 47 was dispatched to the Ponderosa Fire. It was burning in timber, very different from the Apple Fire which was  primarily brush.

When the crew was struggling on the fire’s edge to charge a hose lay with water a helmet cam captured the action.

Firefighters initial attack the Ponderosa Fire
Firefighters initial attack the Ponderosa Fire. Discovery Channel.

As the flames spread closer to the hose that lay flat with no water, we hear, “Come on boys! Double time it! When you get water take off running”, meaning, when you get water at the nozzle, apply it along the fire’s edge at a fast pace.

“Our life is going to be miserable in a minute if you don’t hurry up.” “We’ve got a busted hose”. “Oh (bleep).”

firefighters Ponderosa Fire
Firefighters initial attack the Ponderosa Fire. Discovery Channel.

The verdict

The Discovery Channel did an admirable job of capturing a few examples of what wildland firefighters see while actually on a fire, and as Engineer Dudley explains, what they think and how the job impacts a family. It is not a complete picture in 42 minutes, of course, but it is a brief glimpse into some aspects of the job.

The production values were very good and the cinematographers recorded, at times, impressive flames and smoke columns — eye candy, to some. Yes, fires at times can be beautiful.

The 42 minutes of Episode 1 were interesting and I will set my device to record more. But, having been a firefighter, I am naturally drawn toward what was my passion for 33 years. Having video cameras and microphones WITH the personnel as they fight fire without an engine visible is something not often seen.

We’ll have to see if every episode shows pretty much the same thing, putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. Maybe if they can generate interest in two or three firefighters with interesting story lines it could add another element. This is a niche in television, wildland firefighting, however there are lots of niche TV shows that are successful on cable channels.

But there will probably be one or two firefighters who will watch the show and try to demonstrate their knowledge by criticizing what they saw on the screen.

You can watch the full version of Episode 1 at the Discovery Channel, plus two shorter episodes, 105 and 106, seven and eight minutes long, about the Glass, Blue Ridge, and Silverado Fires that burned in southern California in 2020.

CAL FIRE introduces firefighting hand crews staffed by civilians

New CAL FIRE Firefighter 1 hand crews
New CAL FIRE Firefighter I hand crews. CAL FIRE photo.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, has introduced two hand crews staffed by civilians, rather than inmates. Based in the San Bernardino Unit, their primary mission will be fuels reduction and fighting wildfires in San Bernardino, Inyo, and Mono Counties.

Each Type 2 Initial Attack crew is staffed by 2 Fire Captains and 12 Firefighter I’s. The 4 Captains selected to lead the crews bring 107 years of wildland firefighting experience, with over 60 of those years spent on hand crews. Most of the firefighters have Type 3 engine time and about half bring hand crew experience.

This is a significant step for a state that has been relying on inmate hand crews for over half a century.

With the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the number of inmate firefighters, the CAL FIRE is scrambling to find enough personnel to handle the all important job of cutting fireline and mopping up wildfires.

COVID spreading through inmate crew camps and prisons has cut the number of inmate crews available from 192 to 94. On July 9 California Governor Gavin Newsom said 12 inmate camps had to be quarantined last month due to the virus. Compounding the firefighter shortage was the early release of thousands of state inmates to create more space in the facilities during the pandemic, and before that, the state’s initiative to reduce the incarceration of those jailed for lower-level offenses.

The Governor announced the state intends to hire an additional 858 seasonal and 172 permanent firefighters. The agency has also changed the mission of six California Conservation Camp (CCC) crews to exclusively perform fire related tasks, two in the south and four in the north.

New CAL FIRE Firefighter 1 hand crews
New CAL FIRE Firefighter I hand crews. CAL FIRE photo.

Pay for California state firefighters cut by 7.5%

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

Budget problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in pay cuts for many employees of the state of California.

In May, 2020 Governor Gavin Newsom said he would seek a 10 percent pay cut for state workers, but the changes in salary had to be negotiated with numerous labor unions.  The reductions could be accomplished by modifying various types of special pay, overtime, vacation time, or health insurance. By the July 1 deadline all but one of the smaller unions had agreed to the changes.

The deal worked out by the firefighters union, CAL FIRE Local 2881, was an overall 7.5% cut while receiving two flexible days off each month. That includes a 4.4% reduction in their retirement health care, resulting in a 3.1% cut in take-home pay. The changes take effect this month.

More information is at the Sacramento Bee.

CAL FIRE to hire more than 1,000 additional firefighters

More seasonal and permanent firefighters

(Revised at 11:15 a.m. PDT July 10, 2020)

Inmate crew carrier vehicles
Approximately 19 inmate crew carrier vehicles at the Eagle fire in San Diego County, which burned between Warner Springs and Borrego Springs, California. CAL FIRE photo, July 25, 2011.

With the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the number of inmate firefighters, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is scrambling to find enough personnel to handle the all important job of cutting fireline and mopping up wildfires.

COVID spreading through inmate crew camps and prisons has cut the number of inmate crews available from 192 to 94. Thursday California Governor Gavin Newsom said 12 inmate camps had to be quarantined last month due to the virus. Compounding the firefighter shortage was the early release of thousands of state inmates to create more space in the facilities during the pandemic, and before that, the state’s initiative to reduce the incarceration of those jailed for lower-level offenses.

The Governor announced the state intends to hire an additional 858 seasonal and 172 permanent firefighters. The agency has also changed the mission of six California Conservation Camp (CCC) crews to exclusively perform fire related tasks, two in the south and four in the north.

Lynnette Round, a CAL FIRE Education and Information Officer, said the $72 million needed to hire the firefighters will come from the already allocated Emergency fund.

CAL FIRE expects to begin hiring the firefighters immediately using current eligibility lists. They anticipate that a recruitment process will occur to increase the number of candidates beyond the current lists.

The increase in the number of employed state firefighters is part of  the agency’s effort to keep 95 percent of all fires to 10 acres or less.


(This article was edited July 10 to show that 172 permanent firefighters are being hired, in addition to the 858 seasonals.)

CAL FIRE adopts mascot

They hope Captain Cal will help them connect with children

Captain Cal
Captain Cal. Screenshot from CBS Sacramento video.

Fire safety mascots have been around at least since since the 1950s, such as Smokey Bear for wildfires and Sparky the Fire Dog for structure fires. Forestín, the official mascot of the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) of Chile, was created in 1976.

Now the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has adopted its own mascot. Captain Cal, based on a mountain lion, was introduced to the public earlier this week at the state capitol in Sacramento.

CAL FIRE hopes that the mountain lion character will help them connect with young people about fire safety, wildfires, and other topics.

“We want to make sure we get a character out there that identifies all safety hazards,” CAL FIRE information officer Richard Cordova said, “not only just wildland, but pool safety, earthquake safety, whatever message we want to push we will use Captain Cal to do that.”

Disney animators helped design Captain Cal, the mountain lion that walks erect on two legs. Of course Smokey does also.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

The new Director of CAL FIRE addressed climate change — 9 years ago

CAL FIRE Director Thom Porter
CAL FIRE Director Thom Porter taking the oath of office. CAL FIRE photo.

The new Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had strong feelings about climate change before that was cool. (And some people still deny climate change, the moon landings, and they think the Earth is flat.)

Thom Porter was appointed Director of CAL FIRE by Governor Gavin Newsom on January 8, replacing Ken Pimlott who retired December 15, 2018.

In 2009, ten years after he began working for CAL FIRE, Mr. Porter was featured in a 90-second video produced by Greenpeace USA in which he talked about how climate change was affecting wildland fire.

Below is a partial transcript from the video:

As a firefighter I’m a student of the weather, and I’ve noticed that there’s a change that’s occurred in the last several years.

CAL FIRE Director Thom Porter
Thom Porter as he appeared in a 2009 video.

These patterns are not what I have grown up with. They are also not what I have seen in the historical record. We’re starting to see more monsoonal type of weather that’s causing more dry lightning which ignites fires — sometimes thousands of fires in a 24-hour period. We’re stretched for resources when that happens. We don’t have enough fire engines and aircraft to take care of all those fires.

California has a very diverse economy. A lot of it depends on water. If the climate changes and we don’t have the water we need to support that business or the people who live here, we could see all of society start to have to move out of certain areas. California could dry up and blow away.


Before his appointment by the Governor, Chief Porter had served as Chief of Strategic Planning in CAL FIRE’s Sacramento Headquarters since January 1, 2018.

Prior to his CAL FIRE career, Chief Porter worked as a forester in the timber industry in Washington, Oregon and California, developing timber harvesting plans, planning and directing prescribed burns, and managing company safety programs.

He signed on with CAL FIRE in 1999 as a Forester I in the Forestry Assistance Program at the Southern Operations Center. He eventually served as the Southern Region Chief, Assistant Region Chief, and San Diego Unit Chief.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in forest management from the University of California Berkeley and is a Registered Professional Forester.