By Dawn Killough
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) is often lauded for their effective and successful operations. The past few fire seasons have been particularly busy for the department. In 2020, there were 8,278 wildfires tracked in California. As of mid-September 2021, there have been 7,566, burning over 2.3 million acres.
CAL FIRE relies heavily on local contractors and the timber industry to help them fight these wildfires and meet their stated mission: to serve and safeguard the people and protect the property and resources of California. Every year it contracts with timber companies and equipment providers to get the manpower and machine power needed to fight an ever-increasing battle with Mother Nature.
CAL FIRE has approximately 9,000 employees during the fire season, helping them protect more than 31 million acres of privately owned wildlands. Over 6,000 of those employees are permanent. They are an all-risk department, which means they respond to all sorts of incidents, not just wildfires.
“We augment our staffing during the dry months of the year, which is getting longer and longer each year, with about 2,600 seasonal employees,” says Kurt McCray, Unit Chief for CAL FIRE’s Humboldt-Del Norte Unit. “Employees include firefighters, fire apparatus engineers, fire captains, chief officers, heavy equipment operators, and forestry staff.” In late August, at least 80 percent of those employees were engaged on active fire operations throughout the state, and with their contractors they were working at capacity.
When the season gets going, CAL FIRE relies heavily on their team from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOC).
“Inmates help form fire crews alongside our seasonal firefighters and staff our fire engines,” says McCray. “It’s a voluntary program within the DOC where inmates volunteer to be on fire crews. They are then sent to formal firefighter training at a DOC facility, then they are assigned to CAL FIRE conservation camps throughout the state.”
The conservation camps are run year-round with CAL FIRE crews. Personnel from both departments work at the same facility, where they are provided with continuing training, as well as a variety of other projects during the off-season.
Both CAL FIRE and DOC take pride in the program, which has led some inmates to careers with CAL FIRE once they have completed their sentences.
CAL FIRE also partners with Shasta Community College to provide students hands-on experience working with logging equipment and learning about forest management. The program, known as Fire Academy, certifies students with the basic firefighting training as required by the U.S. Forest Service and California Department of Forestry.
Returning Veterans; Enlisting Their Skills (R.V.E.T.S.) is a recent CAL FIRE service program that assists veterans with integration and transition into service with the Department. They have partnered with CalVet, Cal Guard, and the U.S. Armed Services to provide employment and educational opportunities for veterans who have served, as well as those who continue to serve.
CAL FIRE uses its own fleet of equipment to fulfill its mission of attacking and containing fires when they start. The fleet includes bulldozers, fixed-wing aircraft for air traffic control, and air tankers that deliver fire retardant. In fact, it has the largest firefighting aviation fleet in the nation, even larger than the federal government’s.
When fires grow beyond their capacity, or the number of ignitions exceeds CAL FIRE’s capacity, they rely on private industry to assist them.
“The timber industry fills a void where the employees of those companies have the experience and the knowledge to help us attain our goal,” says McCray. “We hire bulldozers, masticators, feller bunchers, excavators, water trucks, and road graders to help us continue those operations.”
CAL FIRE also relies on contracted fixed-wing and helicopter air services to support their efforts. These aircraft drop water and fire retardant in an effort to manage and control wildfires.
The California National Guard is also involved in similar missions in cooperation with CAL FIRE and its contractors.
Each year in advance of fire season, CAL FIRE establishes contracts with equipment suppliers and contractors. The contracts include the types of equipment for hire, the designated contact people, and the predetermined rates that are set by the State of California. Everything is ready to go administratively prior to the onset of fires. That way, when they have an emergency need, they simply contact the appropriate contractor or supplier. Contractors are able to respond quickly because their equipment is already on standby.
CAL FIRE also relies on timber contractors to help with secondary fire lines distanced from the burning fires. McCray says, “We will hire feller bunchers, masticators, and excavators to help develop those other lines. Those specialized forestry pieces of equipment don’t cause as much damage as when we simply bulldoze fire lines into place.”
95 percent of wildfires in California are caused by humans. By late August 2021, CAL FIRE had made 88 arson-related arrests. The department is investing lots of time and money into educating the public about the dangers of forest fires and how they affect our environment and those caught in its path.
The State of California has also dedicated more than a billion dollars for forest health and resiliency to prevent the impacts of the wildfires. CAL FIRE relies on the timber industry with projects such as forest thinning, fuel reduction, and utilizing some of that byproduct to benefit society in other ways, for instance biomass or small-diameter log processing and manufacturing. It also employs various fire prevention techniques, such as prescribed fire, defensible space inspections, emergency evacuation planning, fire prevention education, fire hazard severity mapping, and fire-related law enforcement activities.
“The investment in our employees and the continued training must be increased because of the scale and size of fires we’re experiencing as well as the increase and the distribution of the population in California, which has now reached 40 million people,” says McCray.
If the regional drought continues in the future, and the number and size of fires increases, CAL FIRE will need to lean heavily on its resources to protect property and life.
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