‘Playing catch-up’: Cal Fire CZU chief Nate Armstrong prepares for hand-to-hand combat for fires to come

Cal Fire firefighters during the 2020 CZU Complex fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Nate Armstrong has gotten got a big increase in funding to prepare for what’s ahead. But with an unending fire season — and the logistical challenges and stresses — the head of the Cal Fire unit covering Santa Cruz County sees more questions than answers about the severity of the year ahead. 

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The peril is clearer and clearer.

The state of California has recognized it deeply, continuing its growing investment in fire protection and in response to staffing needs, proposing millions of dollars toward staffing for Cal Fire crews over the next three years in an effort to meet firefighting staffing needs.

Still, it might not be enough to confront what climate scientists say is in store for future fire seasons, according to Nate Armstrong, Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit (CZU) chief.

“I honestly feel we could have twice the staffing that we have and still not be able to meet every fuel reduction goal that we have — and there would still be catastrophic fires where we get spread as thin as we did back in 2020,” he said. “So it’s really hard to say what the perfect amount is.”

The exact budget details aren’t finalized yet, Armstrong said, but the department will be getting a boost.

Cal Fire CZU personnel respond to wildland fires and manage fire suppression in local state responsibility areas — or regions that aren’t governed by a local municipality.

As the state tries to address its increasingly devastating wildfires, it has continued to funnel money toward Cal Fire’s staffing, equipment and forest resilience efforts. In the past five years, Cal Fire’s overall budget, which includes a range of fire prevention services, has increased by about 45%: to $3.7 billion in 2021-22 from $2.5 billion in 2017-18.

Armstrong told Lookout on Monday that a major focus of the spending this year will be staffing hand crews — the firefighters who help reduce spread of active fires by using hand tools to break down dry vegetation. They also assist fire engine crews by extinguishing hot spots, carrying hoses over long distances and with general logistical support. Through agreements with the California Department of Corrections, Cal Fire’s hand crews have long included incarcerated firefighters from state prisons. As the prison population declines, the state is finding new ways to staff the crews.

Staffing is in critical need this fire season because Santa Cruz County, like much of California, is in a severe drought. While fewer fires have been reported and fewer acres have been burned this year compared to the same period last year, officials fear a scorching fire season is around the corner.

Armstrong served as Cal Fire’s deputy chief of operations during the 2020 CZU Complex fire, which burned about 86,500 acres and destroyed more than 900 homes in Santa Cruz County. He’s all too aware of the conditions that drive fires and what the local staff is equipped to do.

Now, as chief of Cal Fire’s Felton-based CZU Unit, he oversees about 150 personnel for the Cal Fire stations in Santa Cruz County. In addition, he acts as the Santa Cruz County Fire chief, given the county’s contract with Cal Fire. In that role, he oversees five “volunteer companies” which count about 71 volunteers.

He also collaborates with other independent fire districts including Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Felton, in addition to the City of Santa Cruz Fire Department, Central Fire District of Santa Cruz County and the Watsonville Fire Department.

Armstrong talked to Lookout about the upcoming fire season and staffing needs.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Have there been any significant fires in the county recently, and what does the fire outlook look like?

Nate Armstrong: We don’t have a daily count or anything. You’d be surprised — there’s more fires than most people know. We stop most of them very quickly. We had one last night that you won’t see much of anything about because they put it out quickly. It was like a 20- foot-by-20-foot spot. We seem to get vegetation fires almost daily, sometimes multiple in a day. But there’s only been a couple that have truly been visible to wide areas in the county. I want to say, the biggest hasn’t been more than two to three acres so far this year — about three weeks ago.

So we’re in this long-term drought and all of our fuels are stressed. But the fact that we had late-season rains in April, it just moistened everything enough to delay the bigger fires. So while that super-dry January through March hurt us in the long run, those late rains kind of provided just a little bit of reprieve. It’s a good thing we got them, or we would have been seeing major fires already most likely. Yeah, we’ve had a slower start, but as that moisture continues to dry out, we’ll get back to what would be normal for this time of year. And we’ll start to see those major fires happen a little more, hopefully not in Santa Cruz.

While you don’t have the details and amounts yet, could you talk broadly about the big investments Cal Fire will be making this year and in the next few years?

Armstrong: This is quite a big jump in the department’s budget. I wish I could say we’re gonna get a lot — but it’s kind of playing catch-up. It’s going to get us where we needed to be for several years, and we’re kind of just now getting there. We’re really grateful for that, but we know that we still have a lot of growing to do beyond that to meet the needs of the future. Some of the major investments that we’re seeing statewide are major expenditures in aircraft and in hand crews; that’s the folks that are out there with, groups of 15 to 20, with hand tools who assist the crews working the engines with hose and water who usually extinguish fire. The hand crews “cut line” around the whole fire — cut line meaning using chainsaws and hand tools to remove all the fuel [dry vegetation] around the fire down to bare mineral soil.

The big reason for the investment on the hand crews is recent staffing changes. We have a longstanding agreement with California Department of Corrections, which has been the mainstay of what Cal Fire used for hand crews. We used to be funded for 196 hand crews statewide. Due to COVID, early releases and other internal changes with the California Department of Corrections, they haven’t been able to provide an adequate number of inmates to staff those groups.

So where we used to have 196 crews funded, that number got down to like 154 now, and of those, only maybe 40 or 50 are staffed statewide. So that’s why there’s this huge increase in hand-crew expenditures, because we’ve had to put together hand crews from Cal Fire personnel and partner with California National Guard, California Conservation Corps.

We’re having to do these different kinds of hand crews now to kind of supplement what we’ve lost with those Department of Corrections ones. We do have a hand crew made up of a combination of Cal Fire and the California Conservation Corps out of Watsonville, and that was supposed to be a seasonal crew, but with this new budget, that crew got made permanent [effective July 1].

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With the stress of the past several years, and the grim outlook on the horizon, how are firefighters managing stress? How does Cal Fire address its staff mental health?

Armstrong: The last several years have definitely taken a toll on a lot of our folks. It’s a stressful job, inherently, and then you add the long time away from family and just never getting those opportunities to wind down. Years ago — [those] of us that have been in it for 20 years know — you would have one fire a year statewide that was about 100,000 acres. Now it seems like that’s the norm, and these firefighters are going from one to the next, to the next, to the next. It just seems to be getting worse every year. So that’s definitely taxing on them.

They never really get that ability just to wind down. Over the last couple of years Cal Fire has put a ton of effort into the health and wellness initiatives of our folks. Our employee support services have grown by probably three to four times in terms of number of personnel in the last four to five years. We put a lot of effort into training our folks on stress management and making sure that they have the resources available to them. [We have] different resources from going to retreats to clinicians to just peer support, just trying to make sure that our folks stay mentally and physically healthy and able to do their jobs and also live a long life.

Cal Fire in action during the 2020 CZU Complex fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What updates can you tell us about with fire prevention efforts and the challenges there?

Armstrong: So on the fire prevention side, we’re doing everything we can. But it’s hard because we have a very limited number of dedicated personnel for fuel reduction. What happens is our fire protection employees, the folks on the hand crews and fire engines, end up doing that fuel reduction work when they aren’t responding to emergencies or training and all that.

It’s really difficult with the growing fire season, and what I was just talking about with them going from one fire to the next, to the next, throughout the state. It’s gotten even harder in recent years to get that fuel reduction work done. Which is like a total Catch-22 because we need more of it. So it’s just been really hard. But we’re trying to find opportunities to be more efficient and introduce new tools to that and so forth. We’re always looking for good folks to join our super important mission.

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