These are the hotshot firefighters leading attacks against California wildfires. And they’re quitting

By Paul Vercammen and Christina Zdanowicz | CNN

A swirling tornado of flames reaching 40,000 feet into the sky tore through a California city in 2018, leaving a veteran hotshot firefighter horrified.

The fire tornado, which obliterated entire neighborhoods in Redding, California, during the massive Carr Fire, still haunts former hotshot supervisor Aaron Humphrey. He says that terrifying moment forever changed his outlook.

“You are in a fog and expecting death or disaster around every corner … It collectively killed my hotshot spirit,” Humphrey, 44, said of the fire tornado.

“Hump,” as fellow firefighters and friends call him, supervised hotshot crews from the US Forest Service on blister-inducing hikes to dig out fire lines, hack down trees and set blazes to fight advancing flames. Hotshot crews of 20 to 22 people spearhead fire attacks, and it’s not uncommon for them to hike 10 miles daily with fire gear packs that can weigh up to 45 pounds.

Hump rose up from a seasonal rookie firefighter to the prestigious position of supervisor of the Eldorado Hotshots. He called it the “best job in the world.”

But he quit a year ago.

After 25 years, Hump says he became just the latest mentally fried, underpaid hotshot veteran to leave, at a time when California wildfires are at their worst.


Two firefighters were killed in the 2018 Carr Fire.(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Hotshots are leaving for better pay

The pay discrepancy between federal hotshots, most of whom are employed by the US Forest Service, and firefighters for other jurisdictions is staggering.

First-year federal hotshots make $13.50 an hour, according to David Alicea, vice president of the Forest Service Union in California.

“Yes, you can make overtime, but we’re putting them through the meat grinder,” Alicea told CNN. “We’re abusing them because we are short-staffed, and they are not getting their rest periods. They get laid off when fire season is over, and they choose not to come back.”

These usually young, seasonal firefighters are some of the ones who are leaving. But all levels of firefighters are moving on, including top managers who have the most experience.

“We have experienced staffing challenges as a result of issues such as compensation, remote and hard-to-fill duty stations, a competitive employment market, and the physical and mental stress of year-round fire conditions on fire personnel,” Regina Corbin, a spokeswoman for the US Forest Service, told CNN via email.

Corbin said that Region 5, which includes California, is converting temporary seasonal positions to permanent full-time posts to improve recruitment and retention.

She says the problems are not new and apply to other federal firefighters.

Alicea agrees.

“We’re down engine crews,” he said. “I know of three or four forests that are down staffed.”

He estimates they are missing hotshots in 35 key positions this summer in California.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein pressed the US Forest Service in a May hearing on how it can stop losing hotshots to other places offering bigger salaries.

“We have 19 million acres [of California forestland] under federal jurisdiction,” Feinstein said in the May 26 hearing on Capitol Hill. “State pay is $70,000, that’s what Cal Fire pays to a state firefighter. The United States Forest Service pays $38,000.”

During the hearing, US Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen confirmed the average yearly pay for a US Forest Service firefighter is $38,000.

“State, local and private entities can range from $70,000 to $88,000 a year, and their benefits are better,” she said.

On Wednesday, Senators Feinstein and Alex Padilla of California, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Steve Daines of Montana wrote a letter proposing a plan to raise federal firefighter pay. They are asking the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government to include it in the 2022 funding bill, according to the letter.

Fires are getting fiercer

Experts fear another terrible wildfire season — possibly worse than 2020, the most active fire season that California has ever recorded. The prolonged drought in the West is also fueling the fires, just one of the ways climate change is compounding the crisis.

The recent fires are part of a larger trend in California.

The seven largest wildfires in state history happened within the last four years, according to Cal Fire. The Carr Fire, which changed Hump’s perspective on his work, ranked as the 12th largest fire in state history.

The increase in California’s wildfire intensity and acres burned can only be explained by factoring in climate change, according to a recent analysis of several peer-reviewed studies. Land management plays a role in the trend, experts say, but it alone cannot explain why the state’s fires have become so much more destructive.

On top of fiercer fires, an unrelenting drought and another big fire season on the horizon, California is losing hotshots, the rock star firefighters with the track records to successfully fight these mega blazes.

“I needed to be home with my family,” Hump told CNN. “The level of stress I was bringing home (from massive fires) — I didn’t even recognize myself anymore.”

Hump, a married father with three children — ages 12, 10 and 8 — now works for Pacific Gas and Electric, as a lead on the utility’s safety infrastructure protection team.

Hump says he’s paid at least $40,000 more annually than what he made before as a hotshot supervisor. The money comes with peace of mind, as he now attends all of his children’s events, even coaching some flag football.

Not enough firefighters to form hotshot crews

There are hotshot shortages across the country, but California hotshots are getting hit harder, according to Jonathan Miller, chairman of the National Forest Service Firefighters Union.

“We’ve seen some attrition across the federal crews and engines, but nothing like the shortages in California,” Miller said.

Alicea says 15 California Interagency Hotshot Crews don’t have enough members to activate as a full firefighting unit. CNN obtained a CIHC document that confirms that number.

When a hotshot crew isn’t big enough, it’s harder to fight fires, Hump says. Smaller crews can’t split up into small squads or help teams with special missions as effectively.

Members with particular qualifications are required to be called a hotshot crew, which were nicknamed for fighting the hottest fires. These crews are trained to tackle “strategic and tactical wildfire assignments,” according to the US Forest Service website.

Two crews, Modoc and Horseshoe Meadow, are operating as even lesser-staffed firefighting modules.

The Eldorado Hotshots may soon lose another seasoned manager, captain D.J. McIlhargie.

“I have five irons in the fire right now,” McIlhargie told CNN. “I’m looking for something that will work for my family more. And my wife knows that I’m tired of waiting for the forest service to give me a commensurate salary to what other departments pay.”

The father of two boys, 7 and 10, McIlhargie lives an hour outside Sacramento. He described feeling “wiped out” and “frustrated” by battling the recent streak of super fires.

McIlhargie, 39, says there are just not enough firefighters to take on massive blazes such as the ones that ravaged Northern California last year.

He says the Eldorado Hotshots spent a month trying to stop the largest wildfire in California history, the August Complex fire, which scorched more than 1 million acres.

The years in fire battle wear down the hotshots from helmet to boots, McIlhargie says.

“My knees ache every day,” he said. “My rotator cuffs are ratchety and clicky from swinging tools and carrying cans (used for backfire fuel) and carrying saws and carrying your (back) pack.”

“Your range of movement in your hips starts to go,” McIlhargie said.

More homes will burn without enough hotshots

If vacant hotshot positions don’t get filled, the firefighters CNN interviewed said more homes will burn.

“It used to be for us hotshots we are up in the mountains, the back country fighting these fires,” McIlhargie said. “Now it seems that every single fire has some element of wild land fire meets urban interface.”

Maeve Juarez spent a year as a Redding Hotshot in 2004.

The 41-year-old mother of two left her US government job as a battalion chief in the Los Padres National Forest four years ago.

“I left because I took a higher paying job with the Montecito Fire Department that allowed me to spend more time with my kids, and it’s less stress,” she said.

Juarez says the pay is significantly higher in her new role as wildfire specialist in Montecito.

Because of her experience, Juarez serves as an operations section chief on major fires, a sort of general directing fire troops from many agencies.

Juarez says losing hotshots, especially supervisors, to other jobs is hindering California’s effort to fight mega fires.

“These hotshot supes know the terrain, what type of brush is burning, how it burned in an area in the past,” Juarez said. “They are a big part of our decision making, strategy and tactics on fighting fires.”

She added: “When a veteran superintendent leaves, we lose that experience, and they are our backbone.”

Hump recalls his hotshot decades, visions of firefights, falling trees, crew members seriously burned and hotshots dying. He helped set up a memorial service in Arizona for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots killed when a fire burned over them eight years ago.

“It’s this feeling of doom, that every fire you go to you are going to lose someone you care about,” Hump said. “It’s terrifying. It’s hard to communicate with your family because you don’t want to scare them. You just hug them and never want to leave.”

Leaving behind the doom of that deadly fire tornado in 2018, Hump is looking ahead to this Fourth of July do something he’s never done before.

“I plan on teaching my kids to fish,” he said. “I’ve never had the time.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Powered by WPeMatico

Small fire put out in Brea landfill area

A spot fire was extinguished Monday night, Dec. 14, in the vicinity of the Olinda Alpha Landfill in Brea.

The fire was reported at 9:10 p.m. in the area of 1942 Valencia Ave. and was reported as being about 100 feet by 200 feet, according to Greg Barta of the Orange County Fire Authority. Barta said the fire was moving at “slow rate of speed” and was declared extinguished by 10:41 p.m.

 

Structures were not threatened and the cause of the fire was under investigation. The Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Fullerton Fire Department and the Brea Fire Department responded alongside the OCFA.

Read more about Small fire put out in Brea landfill area This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed

Powered by WPeMatico

Wildfire outside of Lake Elsinore fully contained at 20 acres

LAKE ELSINORE — A prescribed burn that got out of hand and scorched 20 acres in the Cleveland National Forest was 100% contained as of Sunday evening, the Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department reported.

The burn-off started Friday near South Main Divide and Hacienda Road, south of the Lakeland Village community near Lake Elsinore, but when flames escaped the containment lines, it was declared a wildfire, according to Cleveland National Forest officials.

Water drop on the #SouthMainFire help us get closer to containment. Smoke has dissipated and forward rate of spread has been stopped. pic.twitter.com/gFbZ5FA4Oy

— Cleveland NF (@ClevelandNF) March 7, 2020

Smoke from the fire was visible to motorists on Interstate 15, prompting calls to California Highway Patrol dispatchers Saturday.

Water-dropping helicopters helped more than 280 firefighters on the ground make steady progress on the fire overnight.

No injuries were reported and no structures were threatened, fire officials said.

Read more about Wildfire outside of Lake Elsinore fully contained at 20 acres This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed

Powered by WPeMatico

Winds fan fast-growing Getty fire in Sepulveda Pass; motorists asked to avoid 405, evacuations ordered

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles city firefighters battled a blaze early Monday that started next to the 405 Freeway and Getty Center Drive, prompting evacuation orders and closing the freeway to traffic.

A witness notified the California Highway Patrol at 1:32 a.m. of a fire starting on the hillside close to the freeway with a possible power line on fire, the CHP reported. The CHP shut down northbound and southbound 405 Freeway lanes and all offramps from Sepulveda to Sunset boulevards on the northbound side.

MAP: This map shows mandatory and voluntary evacuation areas for the Getty fire

As of 4:15 a.m., the CHP was asking motorists to avoid the 405 Freeway:

SIGALERT UPDATE*: S/B I-405 AT GETTY CENTER DRIVE, (CLOSURE INFO) S/B SKIRBALL OFFRAMP, S/B SEPULVEDA BLVD. OFR, S/B SUNSET BLVD. OFR, GETTY CENTER DRIVE OFR, AND MULHOLLAND DRIVE OFR WILL BE CLOSED DUE TO BRUSH FIRE DRIVERS SHOULD AVOID I-405 FREEWAY

— CHP PIO – LA County (@CHPsouthern) October 28, 2019

Video of the fire posted on Twitter showed a long ridge of flames on the hill near the freeway.

At around 2:45 a.m., the Los Angeles Fire Department sent L.A. residents messages on their cell phones, accompanied by what some described as very loud buzzing noises. It said: “Emergency Alert. Prepare to evacuate due to fire near the Getty going W. More info: lafd.org/alerts .” A subsequent message included orders to actually evacuate.

#GettyFire Evacuation Warning issued for the area: Mullholland down to Sunset, Topanga Canyon to Mandeville Canyon For a map of the zones, please visit https://t.co/ta4XvQvrGy #LAFD

— LAFD (@LAFD) October 28, 2019

The fire department ordered mandatory evacuations from the southbound 405 Freeway to Mandeville Canyon and ordered students to evacuate from Mount Saint Mary’s University at 12001 Chalon Road. Evacuations were also ordered for 200 people in a care facility next door.

An evacuation center was soon open at the Westwood Recreation Center at 1350 S. Sepulveda Blvd., near Wilshire Boulevard.

Another evacuation center opened at the Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Recreation Center at 14201 Huston St. in Sherman Oaks.

“This is a very dynamic situation due to high winds and information is quickly developing. Stay vigilant,” LAFD spokeswoman Margaret Stewart wrote on Twitter.

The fire was believed to have been 3 to 4 acres when first observed and but soon spread to about 40 acres. By 3:30 a.m., it was reported at 75 acres.

Powered by WPeMatico

Earthquake in Ridgecrest a reminder for Southern Californians to prepare for emergencies

As the Kern County city of Ridgecrest rebounds from the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Thursday, July 4, public agencies are imploring Southern California communities and residents to prepare for disaster.

Caltrans District 8, which oversees Riverside and San Bernardino counties, on Thursday encouraged residents to keep a survival kit, water, comfortable clothing and shoes in their cars in case of emergency. Among the items to include in a survival pack are toothbrushes and bars of soap, a whistle and a flashlight, cash and coins, sunblock and bug repellent.

Residents always should carry enough water for three days, Caltrans officials say.

Southern California Gas, meanwhile, advised customers not to shut off their natural gas after an earthquake unless they notice a gas leak. Customers should call 911 and immediately leave the area if they smell or hear natural gas, company officials tweeted Thursday.

“Earthquakes can happen at any time … and we need to be prepared,” California Earthquake Authority CEO Glenn Pomeroy said in a statement. “It’s important to know what to do to stay safe when the ground starts shaking.”

The California Earthquake Authority is a privately-funded, publicly-managed nonprofit providing residential earthquake insurance.

Los Angeles County Fire officials on Thursday reminded Southern California residents to drop, cover and hold during an earthquake. After the shaking, residents should be prepared for aftershocks and check for fires, hazards and damaged utilities.

Experts at the state Seismic Safety Commission also recommend helping neighbors who may require special assistance, particularly the elderly and people with disabilities.

And to be informed during all types of disasters and emergencies, residents can sign up for alerts through city and county agencies.

Read more about Earthquake in Ridgecrest a reminder for Southern Californians to prepare for emergencies This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed

Powered by WPeMatico