USA – Dick Brown isn’t sure how much longer he will be a volunteer firefighter. At 66 years old, he doesn’t douse flames much anymore, instead driving the water tender to blazes in rural Calaveras County.
But he’s worried about who will replace him. And who will replace thousands of volunteer firefighters in local departments across the state in the coming years as the number of residents willing to do the job dwindles and fires burn at record-breaking pace.
Hard numbers charting the decline of the volunteer firefighting force in California are hard to come by. But in rural county after rural county — including those hit hard by this summer’s wildfires — local officials are sounding the alarm.
They say current volunteers are aging out of the job, and that with extensive training requirements having been put in place in recent years, fewer recruits are stepping up. That puts residents at risk in counties where there isn’t enough money in the budget for a large, full-time force.
“Typically, volunteer fire departments exist because there isn’t money for a paid one,” said Brown, who is the California director for the National Volunteer Fire Council, an industry group representing nonpaid firefighters.
One-third of the 28,000 firefighters in California are volunteers, most of them in rural areas. Across the country, where 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers, departments say they are struggling to recruit new people for a dangerous job. The number of volunteer firefighters in the United States fell by 10 percent over the past three decades, even as the number of emergency calls tripled, according to the National Fire Protection Association, an industry trade group whose figures are often cited by the federal government.
“It’s becoming more difficult to recruit and retain volunteers because it’s a huge demand on your time,” Brown said. “People are busier. They commute longer, work more. Their kids are in sports.
“But, if not for volunteers, who will do it?” Brown said.
That’s the question fire officials are asking as deadly fires rage from one end of California to the other, with 17 states and Australia sending crews to help.
There were 17 major wildfires burning in California at the end of last week, including the Mendocino Complex, which at more than 300,000 acres is the largest wildfire in state history. Five firefighters have died battling the blazes, making it the most lethal year for firefighters in the state since 2008.
“The new normal is we are busier than we’ve ever been,” said Cliff Allen, president of Cal Fire Local 2881, the union that represents paid firefighters with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Demand is higher and staffing levels aren’t meeting those needs.”
Allen advocates for paid union firefighting jobs. But he said that in rural parts of the state, volunteers fill a critical need.
“It’s a necessary evil, so to speak,” he said.
Every minute counts after a fire breaks out — a quick response can be the difference between a small brushfire and a blaze that burns for weeks. That means a rural community with a depleted volunteer firefighting force is at greater risk, said Fire Chief Kim Zagaris of the state Office of Emergency Services.
“We have hired more paid people, but we have less people in rural areas stepping up,” Zagaris said.
In Tuolumne County, impacted by the Ferguson Fire that has been raging for nearly a month, county officials and grand juries have been warning for years about the dwindling number of volunteer firefighters. The county contracts with Cal Fire for some services, but its local departments are primarily staffed with volunteers.
The fire warden for Tuolumne County told a grand jury last year that 250 to 300 volunteers are needed for stations to be adequately staffed. There were just 36 volunteer firefighters before an aggressive marketing campaign brought the total to 70 last year.
Under state law, volunteer firefighters have to undergo the same certification training as paid firefighters. Depending on their responsibilities, volunteers may have a long list of qualifications to satisfy.
“We just don’t have the number of people interested in doing it,” said Tuolumne County Supervisor John Gray. “I’m 70. When I was a young man, you could show up and help put out a fire. Now you have to be trained and certified. In a rural county like Tuolumne, the majority of our population is over 50, and you can’t find people who can do the physical tasks.”
Departments around the state offer various incentives to join, such as a nominal stipend to help defray out-of-pocket costs. Some provide a retirement account depending on how long a person volunteers. In some cases, a retiree can receive $1,200 a month for life if they volunteered for 20 years.
The National Fire Protection Association says that nationwide, there were 1.2 million firefighters in 2015. Of those, 815,000 were volunteers, down from 897,750 in 1984.
There has been an uptick since 2011, when the ranks of volunteers bottomed out at 756,000. But the number isn’t keeping up with the increased demand, said Curt Floyd of the fire protection association.
“This is a trend that is a concern,” Floyd said. “Some communities have had to hire (paid firefighters). There is a cost involved, and some communities can’t bear that weight.”
Nearly every fire department in Lake County, center of the Mendocino Complex fire, and Shasta County, which has been devastated by the Carr Fire, is feeling the strain.
The Lake County Fire Protection District in Clearlake considers its volunteer roster filled when it has 55 volunteers. Lately the total has been around 20. The Lakeport Fire Department also has 20 volunteers, about 15 short of the ideal.
The Shasta County Fire Department is authorized to deploy 385 volunteers. Last month, when the Carr Fire burned into Redding, destroying more than 1,000 homes, the department had 149 volunteers. Among the homes burned were those of several volunteer firefighters, who continued to work, said Julia Haven, a staff services analyst for Cal Fire/Shasta County Fire.
Lakeport Fire Chief Doug Hutchison said his department’s force has dwindled as training standards became more rigorous and the economy improved.
“People just don’t have the time to volunteer like they used to,” he said. “We’re actually pretty fortunate — we’ve had 10 new volunteers in the last year.”
He added, “We did some outreach at high schools, to seniors, to get people interested in this as a career. Volunteering is a first step to it.”
Mandi Huff, office clerk for South Lake County Fire Protection in Middletown, said the agency has about 30 volunteers on the books, but only about 16 show up consistently.
Huff said volunteer staffing plummeted after the 2015 Valley Fire. The blaze charred more than 76,000 acres, killed four people and destroyed more than 1,200 homes.
People who were volunteer firefighters “had to focus on themselves” and moved away to start over, Huff said. “We’ve been trying to rebuild the number ever since.”
Some local officials brought their concerns to Sacramento this year, to push for a bill that would have offered volunteer firefighters a tax credit of up to $1,500 a year for expenses they incur.
The measure, AB2727, would have cost the state up to $30 million a year in lost revenue, according to the bill’s analysis. It stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
“This isn’t a partisan issue — this is a save-my-house issue,” said Shasta County Supervisor Les Baugh, who testified before a legislative committee. “We have a need for this everywhere.”
The bill’s author, Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon (San Joaquin County), said he will introduce another incentive bill in January in hopes of drawing more interest in volunteer firefighting. Flora, who became a volunteer firefighter in Modesto in 2000, said he’s watched as some agencies struggled to recruit new people.
“That’s a public safety issue,” he said. “People call 911 and they expect someone to show up and help them in their time of need.”
It was a 911 call that originally sparked Brown’s interest in volunteering in western Calaveras County. He said he called for help 29 years ago when his 10-year-old daughter was kicked in the face by her horse at their Valley Springs home.
Two dozen firefighters showed up to help. Each one was a volunteer. He still feels he owes the fire department that helped treat his daughter’s broken nose and concussion.
“When I get to the point where I feel I paid my debt, I will retire,” Brown said.
Melody Gutierrez and Megan Cassidy are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Twitter: @MelodyGutierrez, @megancassidy