Essential California: The U.S. Forest Service’s morale crisis

Firefighters silhouetted by fire and smoke
Members of a hotshot crew fight the McFarland fire in Northern California last year.
(Chris Mariano)

Good morning and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, June 17. I’m Marisa Gerber, filling in for Justin Ray.

“We are facing a dire retention issue,” an exasperated firefighter wrote in his viral resignation letter this spring. “We are losing people at a terrifying rate.”

In a story this week, my colleague Alex Wigglesworth showed that the letter written by a squad boss of the elite Truckee hotshot crew for the U.S. Forest Service was only the latest example of how dire the crisis of confidence has become among federal wildland firefighters.

Morale, several current and former firefighters told her, was at an all-time low — the byproduct of low pay, mental trauma and the exhaustion of battling ever more destructive fires.


Forest Service firefighters, typically classified as forestry technicians, have a starting annual base salary of somewhere between about $25,000 and $32,000. President Biden’s infrastructure bill signed into law in November called for the creation of a new classification and an increase of either $20,000 or 50% — whichever was less — in areas deemed hard to recruit or retain personnel in, but after more than six months no raises had yet been given.

“We’re getting paid $15 an hour to put our lives on the line,” said one firefighter who recently left the agency.

Such departures are only compounding the increasingly dire personnel shortages.

As California braces for another brutal fire season, only 62% of federal firefighter positions here are filled, according to a source within the agency. Officials recently announced that they’d been unable to fill some 1,000 temporary firefighter positions and were now looking to make emergency hires by shortening the onboarding process.

According to a recent survey of more than 700 current and former wildland firefighters, nearly 80% of respondents reported mental health issues they attributed to the stresses of fighting fires.

An assistant engine operator told The Times that, due to low pay and trauma, he was thinking about retiring. He’d already gotten a second job to try to make ends meet — now working 80-hour weeks — and he said experiencing close calls, as well as the deaths of co-workers, had affected his mental health.

Read more of Alex’s report: Hellish fires, low pay, trauma: California’s Forest Service firefighters face a morale crisis


And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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One of L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s most heavily criticized policies may have led to reduced prison time for the man who shot and killed two El Monte police officers Tuesday, according to documents reviewed by The Times. Los Angeles Times

A woman and two girls next to flowers around an eagle statue with the words "In memory of those who served"
People visit a memorial outside the El Monte Police Department for two officers who were shot and killed Tuesday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Alameda County’s newly elected sheriff will be the first woman and first Latina to ever lead the office. Yesenia Sanchez, a sheriff’s commander who oversees a county jail, ran a reform-focused campaign, saying she’d prioritize transparency and focus on crisis intervention and de-escalation. San Francisco Chronicle


A political aide, prosecutors say, showed up to then-Councilman Jose Huizar’s Boyle Heights home with a Don Julio tequila box stuffed with $100 bills. The revelation was among the most evocative scenes described by prosecutors this week in the first of three trials stemming from the City Hall corruption investigation of Huizar. Los Angeles Times


In an 11-3 vote this week, the L.A. City Council moved to prohibit the sale and repair of bikes on city streets — a move critics say will unfairly target homeless people. Los Angeles Times

When KPCC asked listeners to call in with tips about their favorite coffee shops, it got recommendations from all across town. Check out BurritoBreak, Holy Grounds Coffee and Tea, Bloom & Plume Coffee or Nice Coffee. LAist


Inside the MAGA world scramble to produce findings suggesting the 2020 election was stolen. Since the violent attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, to stop certification of the 2020 election results, much of the scrutiny has been trained on what Trump knew, as well as the involvement of those closest to him, including his chief of staff, Mark Meadows. But it was dozens of true believers gathered in hotels in Washington and at a South Carolina plantation who collected the information upon which the Trump campaign based its unsubstantiated claims that the election was stolen. Los Angeles Times

After the image went viral last fall, the photograph of a Border Patrol agent on horseback wielding a whip while grabbing a Haitian migrant by his shirt drew outrage among many officials. Now, the image has been replicated on a “challenge coin,” a type often collected by agents and others in law enforcement. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are investigating whether the coin, which has “Whipping ass since 1924” written along its border, has been sold by anyone from the agency. Los Angeles Times

A U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback tugs at the shirt of Haitian migrant.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande on Sept. 19, 2021.
(Paul Ratje / AFP/Getty Images)

A new skyline for coastal San Diego? Fifty years ago, voters passed an initiative preventing buildings over 30 feet tall from being built west of Interstate 5. But a developer recently got the all-clear from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to build a 60-foot-high building in Pacific Beach. San Diego Union-Tribune


California legislators have proposed a $1-billion-a-year plan to dole out money to first-time buyers who need help covering some, or all, of their down payment. Backers say the plan, dubbed the California Dream for All program, will help lower- and middle-income buyers in a hot market. CalMatters

A bill intended to accommodate working parents recently failed to make it through a key Assembly committee. Around the same time the bill stalled, its author, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), said she was at home sick with COVID-19 and caring for her two young kids. Los Angeles Times


Cannabis lounges in Ojai? This week, the City Council in the popular retreat destination showed interest in moving ahead with a plan to allow three local pot dispensaries to open lounges where people could smoke, vape or take edibles. Los Angeles Times

After he finishes three hours of chemotherapy on Thursdays, he hops on his bike and rides for 15 miles. Meet Robert Duran, a 55-year-old Encinitas resident, who has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and says cycling rejuvenates him. San Diego Union-Tribune

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Los Angeles: Partly cloudy, 74. San Diego: Sunny, 68. San Francisco: Sunny, 62. San Jose: Sunny, 71. Fresno: Cloudy, 77. Sacramento: Partly cloudy, 75.

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Today’s California memory comes from Paul Giltz:

I visited my brother Mark in L.A. for the first time in 1980 during the air controllers strike. The airline told me to call every day to find a flight home. We were at Disneyland when they said, “Get here by 5 p.m.” My luggage was in the trunk, we made it in time. I flew into Detroit, a buddy picked me up and drove me straight to Toledo and the factory where I worked second shift. I worked my shift still wearing the Mouse ears, sunglasses and California tourist casuals I had started the day in. Good times.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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