Southern California preparing for ‘hotter, drier’ wildfire season amid workforce shortages

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As the extended drought has left vegetation dry, brittle and ripe for burning, fire officials in Southern California are bracing for another challenging summer and fall of wildfires amid a shortage of firefighting crews and increased workloads.

“We’re expecting a hotter, drier summer this year leading into the fall when we have our wind-driven fires here in Southern California,” said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby, adding that more than 90% of wildfires are caused by humans.

Officials said they have access to the water needed to battle wildfires. But new water restrictions due to the lingering drought mean many homes will be surrounded by flammable vegetation, putting them at greater risk.

<p>Firefighters train at Deer Canyon Park in Anaheim, California, on June 1.</p>

Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images

Firefighters train at Deer Canyon Park in Anaheim, California, on June 1.

The threat is not limited to California. Robert Garcia, the U.S. Forest Service’s fire chief for the Angeles National Forest, said the summer months are off to a “concerning start.” Firefighting resources have been mobilizing since March to Arizona and New Mexico, where the Black Fire just became the state’s second-largest blaze in history.

“Southern California typically has a fire season of historically late June and then into the fall,” Chief Garcia told CNN. “But we’re seeing activity now year round.”

Angeles National Forest is already under fire restrictions expected to expand around the forest in coming months, Garcia said.

‘It’s much more difficult to fight today’

Every month this year, firefighting teams have mobilized in California, the officials said. In Orange County’s scenic Laguna Niguel, nestled near the Pacific Ocean, the Coastal Fire destroyed at least 20 multimillion-dollar homes and mansions in May.

National Weather Service meteorologist Bill South said it had been “way too early” for a fire like that one. But the Orange County Fire Authority said it battled four significant fires during what normally would be its wet and cooler months.

“I know that there’s some hesitation to say it’s climate change. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve been doing this 40-plus years — I’ve never seen what we’re experiencing today,” said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy.

He added that in more than 100 years of data, there’s no record of fire burning where the Coastal Fire raged. “That vegetation was dry.”

While refraining to blame climate change directly, other fire agency heads echoed the sentiment during a briefing on the upcoming fire season. They added that wildfire dangers are compounded by more people living further out in rural areas as the blazes are also igniting easier and then burning hotter and longer.

“We talked to the men and women that have been doing this job for a long time — some of them four or five decades — and they say they have not seen fires spread as fast with as much energy as they’re seeing today,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Dustin Gardner. “You can call it whatever you want. We understand it’s much more difficult to fight today.”

Officials look to stabilize crews

Firefighting conditions can be rough, the work arduous and the days long, often keeping firefighters away from home for weeks at a time.

Previously, a million-acre wildfire in California was seen as a once-in-a-lifetime fire event. But now firefighters are up against these kinds of blazes two or three times a season, said Garcia of the US Forest Service. All of this is compounded by a need for more firefighters.

“There’s definitely a huge burnout factor in terms of the sustainability of that tempo of firefighters, and that’s why we’re spending a lot of time really looking at how we can update and modernize our modules to be more resilient for that longer fire year,” Garcia explained. “Part of it is more permanent positions and far less seasonal positions.”

In fact, the US Fire Service in an email to CNN, acknowledged it has “struggled to fill positions in some areas of the country, especially in the Pacific Northwest and California where the labor pool is low” and pay isn’t as competitive as it could be.

Many firefighters have left federal service to take jobs in local municipalities with lower stress and higher pay — or have left firefighting behind completely. That’s put a strain on remaining teams, especially as these firefighting professionals take their institutional know-how with them.

The US Forest Service said it is working to bring on more personnel via emergency hiring authorities and contracted crews, as well as turning to the Department of Defense for added support.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden last year. Through it, the Forest Service said it will raise pay based on its budget requests to pay all firefighters at least $15 an hour.