September 25, 2022
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CAL FIRE dealing with long shifts and mental health issues

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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.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.
View all posts by Bill Gabbert





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