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California lawmakers push for new funding for more wildland firefighters

Firefighters battle the Maria Fire in California's Ventura County in 2019.

After several years of increasingly brutal fire seasons, California’s wildland firefighters are stressed and exhausted. A bipartisan group of state legislators wants to fund a major expansion of their ranks.

Cal Fire is the largest fire department in California, with about 7,200 uniformed personnel. But as wildfires get larger and more extreme -- and with fire season now extending nearly year-round -- state Senator Mike McGuire says limited human resources are being stretched too thin.

"The men and women who are the heart of Cal Fire would never say this out loud, but they’re at the breaking point," McGuire said at a news conference on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento Friday. "What’s been happening over this past decade in the state of California with the rise of megafires, and simply not enough staffing, is not sustainable."

McGuire said many firefighters are working 40 days or more at a stretch without any time off. He said this is leading to burn-out, family stress and mental health issues.

Cal Fire Capt. Angel Hendrie described the impacts of these prolonged deployments.

"The cost to the firefighters is tragic," she said. "Months on the front line, loss of marriages, strains on families. Mental health issues that have resulted in thousands of calls to the mental health hotline, asking for help. And in the worst case, members taking their own lives."

Hendrie said that in 2017, she lost her partner of three years to suicide.

McGuire, a Democrat who represents the California's 2nd Senate District along the North Coast, is sponsoring a bill to hire 1,124 new firefighters in California at a cost of $214 million a year. He says it would be “a down payment” toward solving a critical shortage of firefighters in the state.

McGuire is joined by Republican Senator Brian Dahle, representing the 1st Senate District, and other state legislators in supporting the measure. Dahle said at the Capitol event that the cost of adding more firefighters was well worth it when compared to the tens of billions of dollars in damages caused by wildfires in recent years.

The bill is expected to be introduced when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.