CAL FIRE could add more than 1,000 firefighters if Calif. voters approve new tax
Local 2881 President Tim Edwards said more hiring may lead to shorter stints working on wildfires and shorter regular weekly shifts, which now last 72 hours
By Wes Venteicher
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO — A new tax on California’s wealthiest residents, if approved by voters next week, could raise enough money for CAL FIRE to hire more than 1,000 new firefighters.
Proposition 30 would funnel an estimated $525 million to $750 million to a new fund to be used by CAL FIRE with an explicit emphasis on hiring and retaining firefighters, according to a breakdown of Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates and the proposition’s text.
Most of the debate over the proposition — recently polling with less than 50% support after Gov. Gavin Newsom came out against it — has focused on the $3 billion to $4.25 billion the proposition would collect for zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, grid support and accessibility with a 1.75% tax hike on annual income over $2 million.
While CAL FIRE’s portion is comparatively small, it would be the equivalent of growing the department’s $3.9 billion budget for the present fiscal year by nearly a fifth.
CAL FIRE spokesman Issac Sanchez declined to directly respond to a question about how many firefighters the department could hire with that much money, referring questions to the proposition’s backers, including CAL FIRE Local 2881, the state firefighters’ union.
Local 2881 President Tim Edwards said the union hasn’t identified a solid figure for potential new hires. But he cited a CAL FIRE estimate that it would cost about $1.5 billion to hire and equip roughly 3,000 new firefighters.
With CAL FIRE projected to receive up to half that much if Prop 30 passes, it could presumably hire, equip, train and support somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 more firefighters, based on the estimate cited by Edwards. The union currently represents about 7,700 firefighters, including seasonal employees.
“This puts more men and women on the front line for not just suppression, but prevention to help not have these mega-fires,” he said.
He said the union insisted on language in the proposition saying CAL FIRE must prioritize “retaining, housing, training and hiring” permanent and seasonal firefighters before spending the new revenue on things like fire-sensing cameras or home-protection grants.
He said hiring is needed to reduce the weeks-long shifts CAL FIRE firefighters must spend on wildfires and shorten their regular workweeks.
When they’re not fighting wildfires or doing prevention work, state firefighters work weekly 72-hour shifts under CAL FIRE contracts with local governments.
Unlike the state, local fire departments that don’t contract with CAL FIRE are often staffed by firefighters working 56-hour shifts. Local departments also pay an average of 24% more with overtime factored in, according to the most recent California Human Resources Department salary survey.
Those factors are making it hard for CAL FIRE to keep firefighters from switching to jobs at local departments, Edwards said.
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Lawmakers have taken steps to improve firefighters’ pay and working conditions. This year’s budget includes $169 million, plus $164 million per year moving forward, to add 827 positions.
And Local 2881’s tentative contract agreement, which faces a ratification vote among union members this week, would reduce CAL FIRE work weeks to 66 hours starting November 2024, subject to that year’s budget restraints.
Opponents of Prop. 30 have pointed to those expansions — along with California’s spending on new planes, helicopters, fire-sensing cameras and prevention efforts — while making a case that another tax on high earners is unnecessary in California, which already taxes the top income bracket at 13.3%, the highest rate in the country.