When state crews head out the station door for a wildfire, the time clock starts ticking and doesn’t stop until they return.
Firefighters for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are paid “portal to portal.” For the first 56 hours on a wildfire, they receive their regular hourly wage around the clock. After that, and for as long as they are assigned to the fire, they earn time and a half.
The state Legislative Analyst’s Office has pegged rising labor costs -- along with an increase in wildfire -- as major factors in a 150% leap in California’s fire protection costs in the last decade.
Cal Fire crews have won a series of 4% to 5% increases in base salary, as well as improved overtime pay, in the last decade. Overtime costs for state firefighters rose an average of 14% a year from 1994 to 2004, according to a report by the legislative analyst.
So attractive is the pay that the defection of federal firefighters to Cal Fire has become a problem for the U.S. Forest Service.
A recent federal analysis found that the average hourly pay of Forest Service firefighters in California was greater than the state rate, but that staffing formulas guarantee Cal Fire crews more hours and therefore higher annual pay. State fire captains earn an average of $94,644, about $18,000 more than their Forest Service peers.
“I don’t begrudge them a dime of it,” said Bill Robertson, Cal Fire’s director of management services. “You’ve got guys doing grueling work. If you’ve got a firefighter out there 13 days . . . risking life and limb, I think they deserve it.”
Unlike federal crews, who typically sleep in tents or trailers while on wildfires, Cal Fire crews routinely stay in motels or hotels under terms of their labor agreement. “I’m completely unapologetic about that,” said Terry McHale, policy director for the CDF Firefighters union, which represents 6,500 state firefighters and for decades has retained one of California’s most powerful lobbying firms, Aaron Read & Associates.
McHale said the pay raises were “long overdue” and that the dramatic rise in state fire-protection costs “should be expected” given the magnitude of wildfires.
Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.