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Cal Fire cadets who were dismissed for drinking will get their jobs back

Cal Fire cadets who were dismissed for drinking will get their jobs back
Humboldt County firefighters hoses down smoldering flames inside a destroyed home after the Thomas Fire burned in Montecito, Calif. in December 2017. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

At least 10 state firefighter cadets who were sacked for drinking alcohol earlier this year will be reinstated after serving suspensions, state fire officials said Tuesday.

The cadets were ordered reinstated after the State Personnel Board reached a settlement with the firefighters union, which argued that their dismissal was excessive.

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The decision comes as Cal Fire officials have sought to take a hard line on alcohol use among firefighters after a series of department scandals and the increased stresses firefighters face with a now year-round fire season.

The firefighters involved in the settlement were among a larger group of 16 cadets who were fired amid the crackdown on booze consumption.

The cadets will rejoin the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection beginning in January, said Tim Edwards, director of Cal Fire Local 2881, the firefighters union.

The reinstated cadets had recently completed seven weeks of fire academy training, according to officials. Many of them had been employed for years as seasonal firefighters and were seeking to earn an engineering classification they hoped would lead to increased pay and full-time work, according to the union.

The cadets were fired for having celebratory drinks the Thursday night before their graduation. They had finished their training and testing, but the academy bars cadets from drinking alcohol Monday through Friday, officials said. Cadets are allowed to consume alcohol on weekends, but are considered to be on duty throughout the workweek.

On Tuesday, a Cal Fire official said the agency had acted to enforce necessary policies.

"We hold employees to high standards,” said Scott McLean, deputy chief with Cal Fire. “We have a responsibility to our department and to the public, and we have zero tolerance about drinking on duty.”

The crackdown on alcohol use follows a 2014 scandal in which a Cal Fire battalion chief killed his fiancee. That crime triggered a larger ethics probe in which two firefighters were fired and more than a dozen others punished.

Cal Fire officials have also acknowledged that the physical and psychological stress of fighting wildfires has grown tremendously in the last decade, and that this stress can leave firefighters susceptible to alcohol problems.

In years past, the fire season lasted just a matter of months, and firefighters were excited by the prospect of battling a major wildfire for several days or perhaps a couple weeks.

Today the fire season runs year-round, and Cal Fire personnel can find themselves battling multiple major wildfires one after the other.

“Now you show up for duty on the first day and the thought is, ‘I don’t know when I’m going home.’ ” Edwards said. “They tell their spouse, ‘I don’t know when I’ll see you next, because we just don’t know.’ ”

The last 12 months have underscored the increasing severity of California wildfires.

Last October, California’s wine country was devastated by a series of fires that killed 44 people and destroyed more than 8,000 homes. Two months later, Southern California was ravaged by the Thomas fire, which burned in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and killed a firefighter.

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Although December is traditionally a quiet time for fires in California, thousands of men and women celebrated last Christmas and New Year’s at a base camp.

“The firefighters have not been getting that kind of break where they can retool, reenergize and get ready for the next one,” McLean said. “It takes a toll.”

For the first half of this year, Cal Fire managed to hold a number of blazes in check, knocking down fires through the spring before they could explode to thousands or tens of thousands of acres.

But then in July, a malfunctioning recreational trailer along Highway 299 outside of Redding kicked sparks into bone-dry tinder, igniting what would become the Carr fire, the deadliest blaze of the year so far.

Within days, the wildfire swept into the city, killing four residents — two of them children. The blaze also claimed the lives of two firefighters.

“We have never seen such fire behavior — such intensity and such growth — ever,” said Mike Ming, Cal Fire’s deputy chief of Employee Support Services.

When Cal Fire first created its support services division in the late 1990s it was just two people, Ming said. By 2018, the full-time staff was increased to eight. Those eight individuals, counting Ming, are responsible for steering thousands of Cal Fire employees through the myriad types of trauma and stress they will encounter on and off the job by cultivating peer support groups, supporting their families’ physical, emotional and psychological well-being and providing them healthy outlets to cope with the stress.

It’s an issue that is now, more than ever, bubbling to the top of conversations about fire service in the state.

“We have a problem in our department. The workload and stress load is leading some people to have a little bit of an alcohol problem…. We’re seeing a lot of divorces. Guys and females are leaning on other things to take away that stress,” said Edwards, the union head. “But there are things that are leading up to these issues that are not being recognized.”

Ming said Support Services sees an uptick in calls after every long firefight, such as the Carr fire in Shasta County, the Mendocino Complex fire that followed it, and the Thomas fire late last year.

Crew members are away from their homes and families for 20, 30, even 50 days at a time, according to Edwards. Tension can build between spouses, resentment in children who don’t see their mom or dad at pivotal life events like graduations and birthdays.

When firefighters call Support Services, they’re increasingly discussing suicide ideation, drug and alcohol abuse issues, feelings of isolation and depression and burnout, Ming said.

“Nobody, even with all the staffing, nobody can sustain that amount of time away from family, the threat to personal safety, the community destruction that we see, the civilian and line-of-duty deaths,” Ming said.

Combine that with long stretches of sleep deprivation common to firefighters stationed on wildfires for long periods of time and it all takes a physical and psychological toll, he said.

If there’s any silver lining, it’s that this younger generation of firefighter is more willing to admit that the job is indeed, stressful.

“Early on, when I encountered some really horrible stuff, the idea was there was a stigma associated with seeking help, because you were ‘weak,’ ” Ming said. “But that behavioral health awareness is not weakness. It’s a condition of our jobs. It will impact us as humans, and it’s OK to seek help.”

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