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Firefighter Shortages Are Expected This Wildfire Season in California

With the wildfire season approaching relatively soon, California is facing a concerning shortage of firefighters. The number of firefighters has declined dramatically since 2019.

In fact, the number has reportedly plunged by over 20% in the last two years. There are several factors that are likely responsible for the decline.

Lower Incarceration

There are several reasons for this decline. One is the fact that there are fewer incarcerated people in California as a result of COVID-19. Prison reform also caused more people to be released from custody.

Previously, California had relied on inmate firefighters for a lot of its fire fighting efforts. These firefighters were incarcerated people, but they would go out with a fire crew to help fight wildfires. If there are fewer incarcerated people in California, there are fewer inmate firefighters to help during blazes.

Overall, the trend towards less incarceration is likely a good thing. In the short term, though, it strains firefighting resources.

Exhaustion and Long Hours

Another factor is exhaustion. California’s drought has led to an unprecedented set of very damaging wildfire seasons. This has resulted in a lot of extra work from any fire crews. That has left many of them exhausted. Some are understaffed as well.

Fighting wildfires is dangerous, challenging work under the best of circumstances. With wildfires becoming more frequent, understaffed crews answering more calls per day, and firefighting conditions themselves becoming more challenging, many crews are feeling the impacts. Add to that the challenge of operating during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenges associated with firefighting get that much harder.

The Great Resignation

Another factor is the overall Great Resignation that has happened across the United States. People have been leaving their jobs in record numbers, and fire fighting is no exception. Many people depart jobs in order to seek better pay elsewhere.

Some of the people who had previously chosen firefighting as a career might be reconsidering that choice in light of higher pay and safer working conditions offered elsewhere. Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that firefighting can pay less than minimum wage in California. That can make recruiting and retaining firefighters challenging. As a fire official points out, when fast-food restaurants pay more than firefighting agencies, it’s hard to recruit staff.

All these factors are combining to suggest that this could be a particularly challenging wildfire season in California. As the drought continues, wildfires are likely to be intense. The lack of firefighters will only compound that. Make sure to get started with cutting fire breaks and preparing your family for a wildfire early this season.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times.

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