Cal Fire firefighters being pushed to limit as 16 wildfires burn across state

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The state spent $96 million on major wildfires since July. (KFSN)

Cal Fire crews are being pushed to the extreme right now as they battle 16 wildfires across the state.

"This last month, it's been really non-stop," said Mike Lopez, President of Cal Fire Local 2881, the union representing the 6,000 men and women of Cal Fire.

Lopez says many firefighters across the state are working wildfires 20 to 25 days straight, getting a day or two off, and then doing it all over again.

"I don't know any firefighter in Cal Fire who is getting their four days off in a row and that right now is very unheard of to say the least," Lopez said.

Lopez believes firefighters are at an increased risk of injury and fatigue, and they're spending less time with their families.

"Right now our firefighters, with school starting, none of our firefighters are seeing their kids go to school for the first time this week," Lopez said.

"And that's just one of the pieces of being a firefighter for Cal Fire or firefighter here in California," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for Cal Fire. "Those long commitments are a piece of the job."

Berlant says firefighter safety is critical, but that's why there are more seasonal firefighters this year, who are getting some help from out-of-state fire crews.

"The extra firefighters that we've had the last two years has been critical, the extra air support and the ability to staff reserve equipment has also been critical," said Berlant. "For the last two years now we've seen an increase of about $100 million with drought funding that's augmented our ability to staff and respond to these type of wildfires due to the drought."

Berlant can't say right now how much overtime has been given this year, but he does say it's already cost the state $96 million to fight major fires since July.

Berlant believes it's important to note that while firefighters might be on a wildfire for up to three weeks, it's not necessarily non-stop firefighting.

"So they're on duty 24 hours, on the fire lines, and then they're off for 24 hours," Berlant said. "They're still assigned to the incident, but we'll give them the opportunity to have the day off where they're not actually fighting the fire."

"The bottom line is, more firefighters put out more fires," Lopez said.

Ideally, he'd like to see four firefighters on every Cal Fire engine.

The union and the agency can agree: the best form of relief for firefighters will be continuous rainfall and a strong El Nino.
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