Cal Fire Rank-and-File Firefighters Battle Flames While Fighting for Better Wages

As firefighters battle blazes across the state, another battle is about to be waged on the steps of the state capitol as firefighters and supporters of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection push for higher wages.

Members of Cal Fire Local 2881, the union that represents 6,000 state employed firefighters who respond to brush fires and major emergencies up and down the state and calls for service in 36 of the state's 58 counties via contracts with local governments, plans to march to the state Capitol on Monday.

The group plans to walk five blocks from the union offices to the north steps of the capitol where they will rally for about an hour.

It'll be the first such rally the agency has had since the 1970s, said union president Mike Lopez.

"When your employees are not being paid what I would consider an acceptable wage and when they're not allowed to go home because of Cal Fire understaffing, that is a recipe for bad morale," Lopez said. "Our membership wants the public to know that their firefighters are not happy."

Firefighters say they are paid less and must work more hours compared with their counterparts at other agencies. They say that when they leave Cal Fire after 15 years of service at the rank of fire captain, they go to work for a local agency and make more money, work fewer hours and earn better benefits as a rookie firefighter.

Firefighters in the 20 largest agencies in the state with more than 75 personnel, for instance, can earn up to $8,700 a month in gross base pay before retirement and benefits are taken out, compared with a Cal Fire captain who earns up to $4,609 a month in gross base pay, said Tim Edwards, the state rank-and-file director and chair of the union's negotiating team. Like other municipal fire agencies, Cal Fire firefighters also earn overtime.

All municipal agencies in the state have 56-hour work weeks, while Cal Fire firefighters work a 72-hour workweek, Edwards said. Cal Fire firefighters last received a pay increase of 4 percent in fiscal 2014-15. The current agreement is scheduled to expire in July 2017, officials said.

"Our state firefighters are everyday heroes and are valued civil servants," said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California Department of Human Resources, the agency negotiating with the union. "However, when considering compensation the state must balance the needs of many different bargaining units and the overall state budget."

Harley Shaiken, a labor studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that the union's push is a "very real, but hidden cost of climate change."

"There are people on the front lines of this where this is their livelihood," he said. "They're feeling increased pressures and all the tensions that are related to this. At a minimum this is putting it front and center. These are real fiscal issues. There are a lot of other urgent priorities, but this has to be put in that mix."

The push comes as firefighters are putting out or mopping up at least a dozen fires currently burning across the state during California's sixth year of historic drought and extreme heat combining to make for tinderbox conditions year round.

"Our guys are going from fire to fire and they're not going home," Lopez said. "They're doing it for a longer duration than they ever had before."

The time away from family is taking a toll, Lopez said. One firefighter reported recently working three weeks straight with no time off. A captain reported working for 20 days straight. The department gave him two days rest and relaxation but he couldn't go home. His wife and child visited him at a hotel, Lopez said.

"That's the normal now," Lopez said.

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