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East County state senator pushing increased staffing at CAL FIRE

CAL FIRE helicopters flying overhead to douse fires are a familiar sight for San Diegans during wildfire season.

With much of California still under severe drought conditions, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared this week to be Wildfire Preparedness Week. But with California wildfire season extending every year, it's taking a toll on CAL FIRE firefighters.

"From behavioral health, marriages, family life, everything costs ...," said Patrick Walker with the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 2881. "If you look at CAL FIRE, it's 2022, and we're utilizing 1975 levels on our staffing.”

Walker represents more than 800 CAL FIRE firefighters in San Diego County. Right now, CAL FIRE operates with an average of 2.7 crew members per fire engine. A fully staffed engine needs at least three crew members.

To keep engines fully staffed, the agency is mandating overtime. During wildfire season, that could mean firefighters working 40 or more days nonstop.

That's part of the reason why California state Sen. Brian Jones (R-38, Ramona) co-authored a bill that would add more than 1,100 firefighters to CAL FIRE. He represents a wide swath of rural East County, one of the most fire-prone areas in the county.

"So we need to prioritize this expenditure and get these fire department staff restaffed ... so that we're ready for these fires when they happen again," he said.

Senate Bill 1062 has bipartisan support. The bill would require CAL FIRE to maintain a minimum of three firefighters per fire engine without forcing overtime. In San Diego, that would mean at least 50 more CAL FIRE firefighters.

Walker supports the bill. He said burnouts and low morale from long hours have already made some firefighters go to private industry.

The bill is currently moving forward in committee, pending the governor's May budget revision. If passed, it will go into effect next year.