Overtime pay soared at Cal Fire as record wildfires burned across state

Wildfire overtime increased Cal Fire’s payroll by $91 million last year, a sharp increase from what was already an expensive year before it, underscoring the budget challenge the state may face if major fires are now the norm.

The department paid its workers about $855 million in 2018, up 12 percent from 2017, according to an analysis by The Bee. That included $207 million in overtime pay — the highest proportion of pay taken as overtime among state departments, according to the analysis.

Firefighters spent stretches of up to six or seven weeks battling the Camp, Woolsey and other fires, said Tim Edwards, president of union Cal Fire Local 2881.

“On some of these fires, the bigger ones, there’s no way out of it,” Edwards said. “That’s just what it takes to get these fires out, is non-stop working. But we don’t even have a relief crew to come in.”

Entry-level Cal Fire firefighters make $12.60 an hour to $15.92 an hour, according to CalHR salary schedules.

When they aren’t fighting wildland fires, firefighters typically work 72-hour shifts, resting when they can at firehouses between calls, Edwards said. Nineteen hours of overtime per week are built into that schedule to comply with federal labor law, he said.

Nearly 150 Cal Fire employees earned more than $200,000 in total pay in 2018, up from about 65 in 2014, after adjusting for inflation. Most of those high-earning employees were assistant chiefs, battalion chiefs or fire captains.

While some firefighters may seek out a little extra overtime here and there for financial reasons, nobody wants to spend weeks in the woods away from their families, Edwards said. He said suicides and divorces are up as the fires affect workers as well as their families.

“It’s killing them,” he said. “They want to go home, but if we don’t have the staffing we can’t do it.”

When firefighters are battling wildland fires, department guidelines call for a 24-hour break after 14 days, which is often spent at a hotel where they could be called back to the fire line. Guidelines call for another break after 21 days, but those breaks don’t always come and they are not enough, Edwards said.

Edwards is pushing for the state to add 31 more fire engines and enough firefighters to staff them, which would return the department’s workforce to 1975 levels, when Cal Fire staffing was at its peak.

With enough staffing, he wants to create a hard cut-off time after which wildland firefighters would be able to go home for a few days, rather than the 24-hour breaks.

“They have to reset physically and mentally, and their family, too,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed adding 13 engines and 131 firefighters as part of a $95 million budget increase that would also pay for planes, helicopters, fire detection cameras and other equipment. The increase would bring the department’s total budget to about $2.6 billion.

About half of the department’s payroll came in the form of regular pay. About $28 million came in lump sum pay such as vacation cashouts upon retirement. About $187 million came in “other” pay that was not detailed in state controller’s office data. Cal Fire did not respond to questions about what the $187 million was spent on.

Cal Fire’s payroll rose to the fifth-highest among state departments, behind the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CalTrans, the Highway Patrol and the Department of State Hospitals, according to the analysis. No other state department had a higher proportion of overtime pay.