SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CBS13/AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday said the state will hire nearly 1,400 additional firefighters as an unusually dry winter stokes fears of another devastating wildfire season.
California depends on snowfall in the mountains for much of its water. But the latest snow survey recorded a statewide "snow water equivalent" of just 15 inches, or about 54% of average for April 1, when the state's snowpack is the deepest.
The state had a similarly dry winter last year. What followed was a record-setting wildfire season where more than 4% of the state's land burned, destroying nearly 10,500 buildings and killing 33 people.
Tuesday, Newsom said he was using his emergency authority to spend $80.74 million to hire 1,399 additional firefighters at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as Cal Fire. More than 19,000 firefighters battled blazes in California last year.
"We aren't just waiting for the next crisis to hit — this funding will support our heroic firefighters to save lives as they work to prevent and tackle destructive wildfires," Newsom said in a news release.
Most of the new firefighters will be seasonal through June 30. Newsom said Cal Fire will assign 1,256 firefighters to eight understaffed fire crews.
Another 24 firefighters will join the California National Guard hand crews who work to get rid of dead trees and other brush that fuel fires. Newsom said 119 firefighters will join crews trained to drop in wildfire zones via helicopter.
While Newsom's moves will bolster the state's seasonal firefighting crews, the state's two U.S. senators and nearly two dozen of its Congressional representatives asked the Biden administration on Monday to establish a year-round wildland firefighting force.
Overtime costs for firefighters surged by 65% over the past decade, pushing annual wages to nearly $5 billion, according to a newspaper analysis published in December.
With overtime, firefighters are among the best-paid workers in the California government, in some cases earning sums that rival their commanders, according to state payroll records cited by the Los Angeles Times. For example, in the city and county fire departments in Los Angeles, the number of firefighters earning more than $100,000 in overtime alone surged from 41 in 2011 to 1,085 last year.
California's peak wildfire season typically runs from the summer through late fall. But wildfires can happen anytime, especially in dry weather conditions. A fire in Siskiyou County near the Oregon border that started on Saturday burned 1.3 square miles before it was contained, according to Cal Fire.
for more features.