California will face a significant shortage of firefighters as what could be a record hot and dry summer begins, despite ongoing concerted hiring efforts by the federal government.
After the annual spring hiring event, the state still has about 1,200 open full-time positions, according to internal data. Although firefighter shortages have been a problem in California and across the U.S. for years, firefighters began leaving their jobs en masse in 2020, frustrated with low pay, inadequate benefits, poor living conditions and extreme stress on their mental and physical health against a backdrop of longer and more intense fire seasons.
Now, data show that California’s federal wildland firefighting workforce is only 65% to 70% staffed on the cusp of a summer that experts predict will be scorching hot and extremely dry – conditions that have led to catastrophic wildfires in recent years.
“It’s a pretty grim picture, and the trend is upward,” said a veteran Forest Service official familiar with the vacancies who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “Without firefighters, it’s harder to keep fires down and get on the ground in a timely manner.
A Forest Service spokesman said the agency “is still working to complete the final round of firefighter hiring for the 2022 fire year and will not have final numbers until then.”
In April, the wildland firefighter staffing issue caused an uproar when a senior Forest Service official testified to concerned lawmakers that a major hiring initiative in California had gone “very well” even though it had not yet begun. Since then, the U.S. Forest Service, which employs most of the nation’s firefighters, has promised that the U.S. will be ready by this summer, traditionally considered the start of wildfire season. However, interviews with people on the ground across the country, documents and data from various regions show otherwise, and historic fires are already raging.
The data show that there are gaping holes at all levels and in all disciplines of the California Forest Service, from emergency dispatchers to smoke jumpers. But the number of unfilled positions is highest in the lower and mid-level positions, which the longtime employee called the “backbone” because they are critical to actively fighting and containing fires.
Of the 4,240 total permanent positions in the state, 1,630 are unfilled, according to the data. However, the Forest Service uses trainees each season to fill some of the lower ranks. Internal documents list apprentices as well as temporary and seasonal workers in the staffing figures. According to the California data, the agency relies on 460 apprentices to fill some of the vacancies, leaving about 1,200 permanent positions to be filled in California.
Hotshot teams, the elite teams that often handle the most difficult calls on fires, also face critical staffing shortages, according to the vacancy data. Of the state’s 540 positions for lower- to mid-level firefighters, 263 remain unfilled.
And although fire season has not really started yet, there have already been dozens of devastating wildfires in California in May, and the extreme drought has forced many Californians into unprecedented water restrictions. Climate scientist Daniel Swain warns that much of California will experience “recordheat or near-record heat” this summer. Other parts of the West, such as New Mexico, have already been decimated by historic wildfires, making it difficult for responders to keep up.
“People are burned out. It used to be something you could handle, but today we have to do more with less,” said the Forest Service employee. “We are jumping into positions that we are not being paid for, and at a certain point, everyone reaches a breaking point and prefers other options to a job like this.”
Although the infrastructure bill signed into law last year includes new job titles and pay increases for some federal firefighters, frustration has spread among members of the force because administrators have been slow to make those changes.
So far, firefighters are still waiting.