U.S. faces wildland firefighter shortage; Cal Fire fully staffed

While wildfires rage across North America, impacting air quality, in California fires continue to burn in Yosemite and in Riverside County. 

CalFire is at peak staffing levels, going into fire season, but other agencies aren’t nearly as highly staffed. 

In comparison, the U.S. Forest Service has struggled to hire and retain firefighters in areas of the country where the labor pool is low, and pay isn’t competitive. 

CalFire salaries range from $26 to $30 per hour.

But according to Steve Guiterrez, a former firefighter and current labor representative, federal workers earn between $12 and $15 per hour, with many needing to work overtime just to make ends meet. 

On Tuesday, Sonoma County’s Tolay Lake Regional Park saw over 60 crew members from CalFire preparing for a prescribed burn of tall grasslands in a 90 acre region. 

The park and the lots were closed off to visitors for the entire day, to accommodate CalFire firefighting crews, who were working with the Federation of Indians of Graton Rancheria and the Sonoma County Regional Parks for the controlled burn. 

CalFire Division Chief Ben Nicholls shared having enough highly trained staff is critical even with controlled burns. 

"In California, it’s a matter of when, not if the next fire breaks out," he said. "We’re here introducing ‘good fire’ to landscape, which allows firefighters better access to control any larger fires like we’ve experienced so often before." 

The current supplemental pay that U.S. Forest Service firefighters receive – about twenty thousand dollars a year -- is scheduled to be discontinued at the end of September. 

There is bipartisan support in Congress, especially from California representatives to support an increase in pay for federal firefighters.