The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

California Heads into Wildfire Season with Fewer Firefighters

Jun 20, 2022

About 10% of the firefighters working for Cal Fire, California’s firefighting agency, quit their jobs last year. That’s 10% of Cal Fire’s permanent work force, not including firefighters hired temporarily for the peak wildfire season. (Cal Fire’s permanent and seasonal workforce together numbers more than 9,000.)

These firefighters are leaving Cal Fire mainly because of the enormous stress and exhaustion their job causes, without time to relax. California firefighters not only face big, life-threatening wildfires, but they also face very harsh working conditions. They are on 21-day shifts, working 72 hours a week. In comparison, firefighters working for the federal government’s Forest Service work 14-day shifts.

The firefighters’ union, Cal Fire Local 2881, filed a claim with Cal OSHA and the Labor Workforce Development Agency in February, stating: “Employees have been known to work 30 days or more without any time off due to forced overtime, and the most egregious cases include employees on duty for 49 days or more straight without a day off.”

Yet, when the firefighters’ union requested that state regulators investigate the unsafe working conditions at Cal Fire, Cal OSHA rejected the request, saying that there are “no workplace standards for overtime,” and that it is “not illegal” for employers to make employees work long hours as long as they are compensated!

California not only understaffs its firefighters, but it underpays them as well. The wages of firefighters can be as low as $13–14 per hour on average, based on how Cal Fire classifies a firefighter, according to the website Glassdoor.

Things are even worse at the federal level. The U.S. Forest Service, which also provides firefighters for wildfires, recently announced that only about 62% of its 4,240 positions in California are filled. In addition, about one third of Forest Service’s fire engines cannot be operated more than five days a week because of a lack of crew members. The reasons are the same: dangerous and grueling work, stress, and low pay. President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill last year promised a sizeable pay increase for federal firefighters but, more than six months after the bill was signed into law, firefighters are still waiting for the promised raise!

So, on both the state and federal level, the force to fight the fires is more depleted than ever.

Over the last ten years, the number of wildfires in California has dramatically increased, along with their intensity and destructiveness. 2020 was the worst, breaking all kinds of records. It scorched more than four million acres across the state, double the previous record. Five of California’s six largest fires in modern history burned at the same time. 2021 was hardly better. A total of 8,835 fires were recorded, burning 2,568,948 acres across the state. These fires have taken an enormous toll in destruction and human life. And this year, in the middle of a severe, ongoing drought, experts are predicting another record-breaking fire season.

But it’s obvious that politicians who run the government, both at the state and federal level, will not put the taxpayer money they control where their mouth is. To entrust the safety and well-being of the society to them is to put our, and our children’s, future at grave risk.