A Cal Fire crew member works near the flames of the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August 2020.
A Cal Fire crew member works near the flames of the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wildfires

Newsom green lights more firefighting resources: What that means for fire-ravaged Santa Cruz County

In Santa Cruz County, the funding announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday will supplement current staffing levels by adding a Watsonville-based seasonal crew from the California Conservation Corps

In the wake of a devastating fire season last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom is allocating close to $81 million in emergency funds to boost firefighting support statewide. For fire-ravaged Santa Cruz County, it’s a measure that will lend much-needed additional support via a Watsonville-based seasonal crew from the California Conservation Corps.

Newsom in a news release Tuesday announced his approval of $80.7 million, using Emergency Fund authorization, for 1,399 additional firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Santa Cruz County, the funding will augment current staffing levels by adding the CCC crew, based in Watsonville, which will be able to help firefighters with fuel reduction work — including cutting fuel brakes — and fire response efforts, said Cal Fire’s CZU San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit chief Ian Larkin.

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“It’s another resource available to us,” he said. “But this resource is also available for response to other areas.”

The crew will be staffed with between 12-15 people and will come onboard earlier than usual thanks to the governor’s funding measure.

Additionally, neighboring units received a boost in staffing that Santa Cruz County can call upon for help if needed, Larkin said. The Santa Clara unit, for instance, received some additional funding to put a firefighter hand crew together, and a couple National Guard crews will be stationed in the San Jose area.

“These are all resources that are available to us all, so if we get a significant incident and those crews are available, we can request those,” Larkin said.

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The statewide boost from the governor’s office ahead of peak fire season comes after Cal Fire’s CZU San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit officials said they were under-resourced and unprepared for a fire of the magnitude of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire last year — one unlike anything firefighters had dealt with before.

Larkin said he hopes a fire the likes of last season never happens again, but added that if there isn’t more rain going forward “our fuels are going to be receptive more readily earlier in the season.”

“So having all this augmentation and up-staffing, we’re a month and a half ahead of schedule, for our staffing already with this augmentation,” he said. “So, it’s a benefit to us all, statewide, to have these resources available.”

The California Conservation Corps, which will staff the Watsonville crew, is a department within the California Natural Resources Agency. The CCC work center is located in Watsonville, allowing fire officials to have a crew in the southern portion of the CZU unit, “so it might actually provide better coverage,” Cal Fire spokesperson Cecile Juliette said in an email.

About the CCC

The corps program provides adults between 18-25 years old a year of paid service to the state, during which they work on environmental projects and respond to natural and manmade disasters, including fires.

2 members of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Fire Team, known as Ben Lomond Conservation Camp #45
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

One of the key elements with the CCC crew will be training by Cal Fire, Larkin said, because not all of them have the necessary basic fire training.

Newsom’s Emergency Fund authorization comes as the state braces for another dry year that could lead to devastating fires. His January budget proposed $1 billion to support wildfire and forest management.

“In California, climate change is making the hots hotter and the dries drier, leaving us with world record-breaking temperatures and devastating wildfires threatening our communities,” Newsom said in the release. “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.”

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The governor’s measure includes “a surge of 1,256 seasonal firefighters for maximum flexibility through June 30, 2021,” according to the release.

“This funding will provide fire crew and fire engine staffing, augments eight currently understaffed existing fire crews ahead of the summer, and allows the early hiring and training of fire crews for fuels management to provide twelve new Cal Fire crews, and six seasonal and six new permanent Conservation Corps crews,” the release states.

Additionally, the measure will provide 119 firefighters to staff Cal Fire helitack crews earlier in the year to allow them to train and be ready by May. The state will also “onboard 24 seasonal firefighters for California National Guard hand crews who support Cal Fire’s fuels management work,” according to the release.

Panetta’s plea to Biden

Newsom’s announcement comes on the heels of a letter sent by California lawmakers — including U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, whose district includes Santa Cruz County — urging the Biden administration to transition to a year-round federal firefighting workforce.

In the March 29 letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the lawmakers argue that transitioning to “a larger, full-time workforce would add immediate capacity to fight wildfires and conduct prevention work nationwide, allow for greater flexibility in shifting personnel between regions when needed, support increased staff capacity to perform actions outside of the fire season that reduce fire risk” and reduce agency costs related to seasonal hiring, among other things.

“As we have seen firsthand on the central coast of California, wildfire seasons, unfortunately, are turning into wildfire years,” said Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, in a news release Tuesday. “My colleagues and I are trying to stay ahead of that issue with the creation of a year-round federal firefighting workforce. Such perennial and critical fire fighters will bring stability, consistency, and reliability to the efforts to not just suppress but also prevent wildfires.”