This version clarifies comments from Jonathan Cox, deputy chief of CalFire's San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit, relating to budget cuts and resources for the CZU August Lightning Complex fires. It also updates the number of firefighters working the complex and the arrival of federal monetary aid.
With more than 300 fires blazing across California today, firefighters responding to the five major fires spanning portions of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties find themselves overworked and short of equipment and personnel.
By Friday, more than 1,000 firefighters were deployed to the CZU August Lightning Complex, a marked increase from when the fire began amid lightning strikes over the weekend. The fires have led to evacuations stretching from La Honda in San Mateo County and Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz County, and firefighters are being asked to work double and triple time.
Efforts earlier this year to outfit fire departments across the state were expected to help firefighters adequately fight this year’s fires. But the financial stamp COVID-19 left on state and local budgets has hindered hiring and equipment acquisition.
“We’re one of the many fires competing for the same resources,” said Jonathan Cox, deputy chief of the San Mateo County division of CalFire. “Our resources are stretched extremely thinly at the moment.”
CalFire, the state agency that contracts with 52 counties and more than 200 cities and special districts including the Coastside Fire Protection District, planned to add 500 permanent firefighters to its ranks. But because of the slash to the budget in the governor’s emergency pandemic revision in May, the agency added only 167.
Using its current resources, Cox said the agency is prioritizing saving human life and protecting structures.
“We’re limited in our ability to take action directly on the fire by the fact that we don’t have the adequate resources,” Cox said. “Fire engines, hand crews, water tenders, bulldozers. You name it, we need it.”
Friday morning, firefighters said they had no containment on the CZU complex of fires.
In June, as CalFire officials anticipated yet another intense fire season, the workforce took another hit. COVID-19 broke out in several prison camps, where the agency recruits around 700 inmates to help fight fires.
In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in early July that CalFire would hire 858 more firefighters. These additions, temporary seasonal workers, completed training by the time the River Fire began burning in southern California, said Tim Edwards, president of the CalFire firefighters union, Local 2881.
“Just in the nick of time,” Edwards said. “And still we’re overstretched.”
Edwards said CalFire firefighters work an average of 72 hours per week, and given the recent fires, days off have been cancelled for now.
The California Office of Emergency Services has begun coordinating resources within its mutual aid program, sending members of the U.S. Forest Service and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, among others, to help redirect traffic and assist in evacuations.
The department worked on an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding through the Fire Management Assistance Grant to help fight the fires in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. This week, the governor announced the grant application was successful.
Still, overall capacity has improved since 2018, when the largest and most destructive fires in California history swept through the state. After last year’s fire season, CalFire pushed the state legislature to add firefighters to its ranks. Cox said if not for that increase things today would be worse.
With the fire season expected to run until November, Edwards believes CalFire needs to push for more staffing.
“We need relief. We need additional people to allow them to have a break,” he said.
He anticipates asking that more resources to fight fires proved unsuccessful at the part of the pandemic, but Edwards is more hopeful now.
“The best time to do it though is when these fires are happening,” he said. “If things aren’t occurring the thought is not there and the need is not there. So it’s always difficult to build your case unless you can show why. Right now is the time to show why.”