Deadly California Wildfires Spark Needed Debate About Current Spending

And it's already contentious.


In the days before Facebook and other social media, it was a matter of course to wait a few days after tragedies strike before making political and policy points about the latest event. We always need to show compassion for the suffering—and wait until more of the facts roll in before getting up on that soapbox.

At the OC Register, we used to refer to the late editorial writer Alan Bock as "Reverend Bock" because he was so good at offering condolences rather than lectures. But, ultimately, it's the role of opinion writers to provide constructive policy advice after destructive events. We see this following the Las Vegas massacre this month, where gun availability became an understandable topic, and after recent hurricanes, where relief efforts received scrutiny.

Now, it's time to think about wildfires. It's hard not to think about them in northern and Southern California. My house is 80 miles from Napa Valley, yet the air is thick with smoke. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes. At least 41 people have died and hundreds are missing as 16 fires engulf more than 160,000 acres in a heavily urbanized area. More than 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed, including wineries.

This is terribly sad. Anything one says about other people's misery comes across as inadequate or trite, but we should have heavy hearts for what our fellow Californians are going through. Wildfires are, of course, a regular occurrence. The fields and woods typically are dry this time of year. It gets windy. Power lines fall. Wildfires spread like, well, wildfire.

What should we learn for next time?

The debate already is contentious. "Climate change is lengthening the fire season in the West," the San Jose Mercury News argued. "Congress and Western state legislatures should be amping up prevention—just as we strengthen dams to help prevent flooding." The newspaper also pointed to (and downplayed) conservative arguments in favor of more logging, which could "reduce the severity of fires."

Those are important discussions, but involve broad topics of climate policy, land-use regulations and federal budgetary priorities. I'm more focused on the concerns on the ground. In particular, there's been talk about the state having too few firefighters and insufficient resources. For instance, news reports suggest that instead of working 24-hours on and then having 24 hours off, firefighters are working nonstop and getting little sleep. We're increasingly dependent on firefighters from other states.

Like all budgets, firefighting ones are limited, wherever the wildfire-fighting funds come from. And public-safety budgets are consuming the bulk of municipal spending these days. Most of that has to do with pay and benefit levels.

The median total compensation cost for a California firefighter ranges from $145,000 for state agencies to more than $196,000 in cities and counties, according to some estimates. Firefighters can earn $300,000 in overtime. The base salaries may be relatively modest, but overtime, pension obligations (firefighters typically retire at age 50 with 90 percent or more of their final year's pay) and other benefits drive these costs into the stratosphere.

Furthermore, California has some of the highest firefighting costs in the nation. That largely has to do with our dry climate and geography, with vast wilderness areas abutting massive population centers. But this shortfall also is because of the salary structure and pension system, with the way governments spend their existing resources. There's a reason that thousands of applicants may line up for a small number of firefighting openings. Those pay packages are hard to fathom considering that a majority of the nation's firefighters do this work on a volunteer basis.

This may be a difficult time to discuss the compensation of firefighters. Firefighting isn't one of the more dangerous professions according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Loggers, fishers, pilots, roofers, refuse workers, iron and steel workers, drivers, farmers, power-line workers and groundskeepers top the list. But there's no question firefighting can be a very dangerous job, and we're all appreciative of the dangers firefighters are enduring now.

Nevertheless, this is a simple math problem. If fire officials spend unnecessarily high amounts on existing workers, they have less money to hire more people. There could be far more firefighters available to fight disastrous fires if overly generous pension payments didn't consume such a large portion of local budgets.

A new study from Stanford University's Institute for Economic Policy Research found that public-employer pension contributions have soared by 400 percent over 15 years even though operating budgets have not grown nearly that much. This "crowds out" public services. That means that the state government and municipalities can higher fewer employees, which means fewer firefighters, also.

As deadly fires rage, this might not be the easiest time to discuss this, but we need to face the obvious. One of the best ways to prepare for future wildfires is for the state to get its pension and compensation systems under control.

This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.

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  1. Just replace ’em with illegals. Sure, they’ll be less trained and educated, but you can hire shitloads of ’em, fewer of us Pasty High Elves will get roasted, and none of them’ll be any likelier to get set on fire, suffocated, or bashed by falling wooden sticks than they woulda been back home in Tijuana or El Salvador.

    1. Plus, if they really ARE wetbacks, they won’t burn as readily as dry and flaky white folks!

      1. The water cannons we’ll be using to shepherd them towards the flames will make sure of that. The money we’ll save on flame-retardant uniforms alone…

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  2. So the problem with firefighters is firefighters?
    How many firefighters, pensions and all, would the high speed rail money fund?
    Maybe the problem is the politicians?
    Root cause analysis: the problem is the California voter.
    Secede already, and take Hawaii with you.

  3. As long as firefighters’ overtime is spent actually fighting fires, I don’t care how much they make. They’re getting paid for doing their actual job. Just get a good oversight system to make sure people aren’t milking it for time not fighting fires.

    Pensions, on the other hand, are always bullshit. They only made any economical sense for the very brief period in time where when men were single earners and they worked until 65 and died at 70.

    1. As long as they keep the spending local, yeah who cares. But you just know that firefighters from all over the state – including those areas that aren’t tinderboxes – are being flown in. As always, it’s not fair to make other people subsidize your choice to live in a dangerous area.

      1. what areas of the country are not dangerous? In 1920 200 people died in a single fire on the east coast. its not just a California problem and note the Santa Rosa fire was in a city not in the wooded mountains

        1. Santa Rosa fire was in a city not in the wooded mountains

          My understanding about at least part of the Santa Rosa fire was that (because government, housing prices; because housing prices;) private developers had effectively obliterated fire zones. That normally cleared developments include easements so that if a house burns to the ground it doesn’t start the house next to it on fire (before the fire department can put it out). But, because the houses were built in the manner that they were and the fire department was otherwise deployed/engaged, you had buildings burning to the ground in relative absence of wild fire.

          1. because of government zoning requirements if you want affordable homes you have to make the smallest lot possible, five maybe eight feet between homes. big lots are for luxury million dollar homes or you have to live far out of town like myself.

            Note many communities are now forcing homes into smaller lots and making it difficult to build on large lots for Econazi reasons. Can’t blame the developer for following the rules the government makes.

            the easements you are referring to are often called green belts on the perimeter of the development not between each home.

        2. Well, I’m talking relatively. I live in a far denser East Coast city and I don’t recall anything of this magnitude in modern history. I think the very dry climate makes the risk of fires higher, no?

          1. inaccessible canyons
            lack of roads
            no water
            It ain’t the risk of fire, it is the extreme difficulty in putting the fire out.

        3. the fire that burned into Santa Rosa was started quite a ways away in rural and rugged country. It quickly burned down the canyon that runs from Santa Rosa up to the area where it started. I know that territory pretty well. There are lots of areas near Santa Rosa that are rural, heavily wooded, somewhat large estates including wineries. Heavy winds rose up and pushed the main fire down the canyon into the north edge of the city.
          Sure, lots of folks built in wooded areas, on hillsides, and close together. This lets a fire of this size spread rapidly, and makes it VERY difficult to contain or put out.

    2. As long as firefighters’ overtime is spent actually fighting fires, I don’t care how much they make.

      If it saves just one life…..

      You realize this whole article is about just this – math is hard. Not hard as in difficult but hard as in remorseless, implacable, unyielding. No matter how much you don’t care how much they make, there’s only so much money to go around and every dollar you spend on a firefighter’s salary is a dollar that’s not available to fund some other – perhaps more efficient – manner of reducing the impact of fires. Government’s purpose is to maximize the power of government, not to perform governmental services in as efficient a manner as possible. In fact, there’s a perverse incentive for government to be as inefficient as possible, to require as much money and as much manpower as the taxpayer will stand to accomplish as little as the taxpayer will stand.

  4. Man, I’m in the wrong line of work. Corporate drone until 68 or 70 sure doesn’t compare to retiring a millionaire at 50.

    1. True, as long as you live to fifty.

  5. To raise a point I have not yet seen made: In Santa Rosa, most of the homes the burned were in dense suburban neighborhoods, not “wildfire” terrain (i.e. isolated structures surrounded by grassland and forest). No new science about climate and vegetation, or policy about building in wild lands and fighting fires there, would have made any difference. If your neighborhood is so densely packed with flammable structures that any single fire will burn up the whole place, you have other issues.

    1. A few years back, there were some construction workers who started a fire in a burn barrel that got loose and did nearly a million dollars worth of damage to the nearby houses. None of them actually caught on fire, it just melted the shit out of those plastic houses.

      1. In Californis two maybe three house is more than a million so you need to up that number to raise an eyebrow anymore around here.

    2. Being in the trade i can tell you that California will have stricter building codes, it already has the strictest, but even built in fire sprinklers would not have stopped the Santa Rosa Fire but maybe sprinklers on the roofs, something I’ve advocated for, would actually slow that type of fire down.

      Note In 1991 when I built my home I asked the insurance company if I put sprinklers on my roof would I get a break? they said no.

      1. Finish the story. Did you put the sprinklers on the roof?

    3. To raise a point I have not yet seen made:

      I’ve heard exactly this raised elsewhere. Normal planning/zoning requirements either space houses out or require them to be made of non-combustible materials. But, due to ‘the market’, the fire burned through neighborhoods without aid from winds or ash. A house would burn and, because the fire department was otherwise occupied, sufficiently heat it’s neighbor’s to start them burning.

      1. all new homes built in California are required to be built with ” fire resistant” material since 2007. its called W.U.I. for “wildland Urban interface” but even with that I don’t think the modern homes would survive the type of fire that occurred in Santa Rosa

        1. I was otherwise preoccupied but it was a local NPR affiliate, this story alludes to it.

          Essentially the State has building codes and zones that it dictates but private developers and local municipalities can effectively exempt themselves. Not from the code entirely or necessarily but that the State is setting code according to the fire department being able to put out a fire in 1-2 hrs. and that in some parts of the State, that can be exceedingly optimistic. So, you can be building up to state and local code with materials that will resist a 700 degree fire for an hour, but that doesn’t mean squat if you’ve got houses on 4 sides burning at 800 degrees for 2 hours.

          Not to imply the builders did it wrong or weren’t up to code, more the general idiocy/bureaucratic incompetency of ultra-high-value, densely-packed, (mostly) stick-built homes in what is, essentially, a desert.

          1. “the State has building codes and zones that it dictates but private developers and local municipalities can effectively exempt themselves” NPR may have stated such but that is not true. what happens is cities and counties were given a deadline to comply which was 2007 and developers absolutely can not exempt themselves, bribery being a different matter.

            1. developers absolutely can not exempt themselves, bribery being a different matter

              Yeah, certainly did not mean to imply that developers were literally exempting themselves. More that a developer wants to build houses and make money and any given municipality wants to attract tax-paying voters. What was previously unincorporated grassland and part of a wildfire buffer zone magically turns into an incorporated subdivision;

              The state fire agency, Cal Fire, has produced fire hazard maps. In high-risk zones, there are building requirements such as fire-resistant roofs and window screens that can block embers from floating into a home.

              But Moritz points out that the hazard maps exclude urban areas. There, local municipalities have their own building codes, which can be less stringent than Cal Fire’s.

          2. houses on 4 sides burning at 800 degrees for 2 hours.*

            *I am not a fire scientist.

      2. That is what the pattern of burned vs. not burned looks like to me, i.e. spacing homes more than 10 ft apart, like for access ways and streets, stopped the fire propagation, while entire blocks of dense houses all burned to the ground.

  6. While fighting these fires local firefighters get time and a half plus their regular salaries. In my small Northern California city our firefighters spend 75% of their time on ambulance duty, 12% responding to emergencies, car crashes and the like, and 3% actually fighting fires. Our fire chief makes $350,000 as does the assistant chief, regular firefighters average $227,000 and average retirement pay is around $118,000.

    1. And how does that compare to other wages in overpriced Northern California?
      We need some basis of reference.
      Does a grocery store clerk make $100,000? Or just $50,000? Or $750,000 with overtime?
      What would a carpenter make?
      I damn near starved to death in Southern California in the eighties on $85,000/yr.

  7. Does no one see the obvious problem with this scenario?

    To expand on the lunacy of exorbitant public worker pay packages; public sector employees should not make more on average than the median private sector wage.

    I think the median single american income is somewhere around $50k? If that is incorrect than it is lower.

    public sector employees, who do not produce anything and do not operate under a profit motive, by simple arithmetic, are net takers. What bloated pay packages mean is that there is not enough money eventually to sustain these salaries and benefits as we see in Detroit, Illinois, Cali, and so on.
    it is criminal that public sector employees receive such lavish pay packages and the private sector guy has a much tougher road. Criminal via political corks. politicians should be jailed for giving away this much money.

  8. More than 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed…

    Mmmm, yes: that too bad.

    …including wineries.


  9. Some fires you literally can not fight until they encounter some form of natural fire block or weather change. but we will and should try anyway

  10. “””””but overtime, pension obligations (firefighters typically retire at age 50 with 90 percent or more of their final year’s pay)”””

    A big problem is when they base pensions on last year pay and also allow overtime and selling back of vacation and sick days back to boost that last years pay

    Sometime people get paid more the first year of retirement then they did without overtime on their last year of working

  11. What should we learn for next time?

    Ban the automobile! (Except for government officials and Hollywood celebrities, of course. They have special needs!)

    What do I win?

  12. RE: Deadly California Wildfires Spark Needed Debate About Current Spending

    California may not have enough money to put out these fires, but thanks to Governor Moonbeam and his cronies, there is a train going from nowhere to nowhere.
    One can only speculate if this train goes “ping” or “woo-woo.”

    1. it goes “ka CHINGGGGGGG!!!!”

  13. There’s also been some discussion locally about sudden oak death. Live oak is pretty fire resistant, dead oak is fuel, and the area’s got a lot of standing dead oak due to a fungus.

  14. What debate is needed? We spend too much. We leave debt to the future generations. It is immoral and unethical. It needs to stop.

  15. What debate is needed? We spend too much. We leave debt to the future generations. It is immoral and unethical. It needs to stop.

  16. California’s fires have nothing to do with funding or lack thereof and nothing to do with climate change either. Fires in Cali have been going on since pre-history, in fact, some used to burn for many many years tearing up and down the state unabated. They’re good for the ecosystem, it is, in part, poor fire policy and our suppression of fire that is in disharmony with the environment exasperates fires when they do occur. The present tragedy also has a lot to do with high population density living in wooden homes right up against chaparral with a complacent population with low historical ken. Build out of concrete, with tile roofs, no wooden eaves, zone orchards to act as breaks between chaparral and the suburban sprawl and you wont have situations like this. Ounce of prevention and you won’t even need Cal Fire! Just zone accordingly. It works, in 1990 in Santa Barbara the painted cave fire did the same thing..huge 50mph NE winds, complacent population, fire storm and over 400 homes gone in a few hours….In 2009 in the same area the Jesusita fire, burned far more acreage and only burned 80 homes because vastly more people were prepared and had rebuilt accordingly. In 2008, to the west, where there are orchards that act as a break between homes and chaparral, the Gap Fire was even larger than both of those fires and the orchards stopped it from burning a single house. Gee whiz…it’s not rocket science folks.

    1. Metal roofs are good too, sparks just go out, not start another fire.

  17. Has anyone considered that one of the primary causes of these runaway fires is that the government EPA and others have eliminated clearing brush on the ground. This seems to be a no-brainer. The results of uncleared brush in forested areas is nothing but kindling for fires.

    Firefighters’ numbers and pay are only the financial symptom. To go after the cause is an entirely different problem.

  18. Steven Greenhut was the Union-Tribune’s California columnist. He is western region director for the R Street Institute. He is based in Sacramento.
    And he doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground about what firefighters make when active or retired.
    Hardly any of them retire at age 50, with 90%, or more, of their final year’s pay.
    Most retirement packages are a multiple of the years served, times a fixed percent ( generally in the range of 2 to 3%). Thus, at a 3% multiplier, one has to work for 30 years to get to 90% – and hardly any get hired at 20 – many don’t get into the fire service until their thirties.
    As for overtime; when the cost of all the benefits that go along with pay, like pension contributions, sick pay, vacation pay, medical benefits, etc. are added up, which don’t have to be paid when one works overtime hours, it costs less to pay for overtime than for a new hire. And it is a requirement that a certain number of firefighters be on duty at all times, such that, when one is unable to work, someone must fill that position, thus the need to hire overtime. What agencies don’t want is to have so many hired that there are extras, to fill in for such absences, because of the times when they become extraneous, yet still have to get paid. Hiring overtime means that doesn’t happen. that

  19. Well then, CA will never be prepared for future calamities, because the pension calamity will cause government to implode….
    But, we’ll be required to use the correct personal pro-nouns for our new regime of masters.

  20. When did Aldous Huxley’s house burn down in a California wildfire?

  21. Nevertheless, this is a simple math problem. If fire officials spend unnecessarily high amounts on existing workers, they have less money to hire more people. There could be far more firefighters available to fight disastrous fires if overly generous pension payments didn’t consume such a large portion of local budgets.

    The current fire has destroyed 5700 structures. It seems likely that fewer structures were saved than were destroyed. California deployed more than 10000 firefighters, and we can charge at least one year’s salary to these fires, so at an average salary of $200000/year, that means that we probably spent at least half a million dollars per structure saved. That doesn’t seem cost effective.

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