Source: Noah Berger, Associated Press.

California needs a Citizen Fire Corps

Under siege from lightning, California is facing one of its worst fire seasons on record. And there are not enough firefighters. This stark reality creates trade-offs for CalFire, the agency tasked with fighting these fires. What should be saved and what can burn? Obviously a tough question to answer when peoples’ homes and historic state parks fall into the “let it burn” category.

But why are these trade-offs so stark? Is a state prone to wildfires not prepared to fight them? Especially a state as large and resource-rich as California. Can the world’s fifth-largest economy and home to Silicon Valley not hack together a better fire solution?

The global pandemic is partially responsible.

In past years, the state relied on inmate firefighters to man fire lines. This practice, dating back to the 1940s, suffered this summer as the COVID-19 outbreak forced a number of inmate fire crews into quarantine.1 These measures, combined with the state sending thousands of low-risk inmates home to blunt the viral spread in crowded prison systems, left a hole the ranks of typical firefighter crews.

Governor Newsom activated the National Guard and the Army is providing assistance. But these efforts are stopgap measures, not at the scale needed, and are slow to mobilize.

There needs to be a way to better smooth the volatility of California wildfire season and the subsequent response. Even without a pandemic, the occurrence of forest fires rarely follows even temporal distribution. Even at full staff, CalFire faces trade-offs during fire season. The problem comes partly from an inherent inability to master the physical world. But we can control our response. Certainly, we should be able to marshal adequate resources quickly to overwhelm the overwhelming.

The Solution? California Citizen Fire Corps.

CalFire should create a civilian fire corps. A group of citizens from across the state who voluntarily sign up to join the corps. The state would then train these citizens as firefighters and empower them to protect their communities when called upon.

The state and various communities would benefit from citizen firefighters distributed across the state. This group of volunteers would complement full-time firefighters as a buffer against periods of increased fire activity that require additional support.

Assuming that most Californians do not keep a fire hose and pickax handy and the state cannot pay full-time firefighters all season to cover all possible fire scenarios, this flexibility solves the problem. And it is easy to implement and maintain.

The cost to the state would include the initial training, the periodic “re-certification” training, the spare equipment needed to outfit volunteers, and wages for these volunteers when they are called for duty.

Selected regional volunteer “fire captains” would work with CalFire directly to maintain distributed networks of volunteers that can be activated quickly to protect their communities. The incentive for speed is obvious for citizens who are hoping to protect their homes and those of their communities.

Scheduling volunteers to ensure a minimum percentage within each region are “on-call” throughout fire season could ensure that response times would be rapid. The state could go as far as working with employers in the state to provide tax incentives for those who encourage employees to volunteer.

Logistically, it would require distributing volunteers and supplies across the state. The state could screen for (among other things) volunteers that may not be long-term citizens of their communities. This parameter would be impossible to enforce, but it could mitigate the downside of training volunteers that then move.

The worst outcome is that the state spends a little bit of money to train and equip volunteers and then none show up to serve and the state is overwhelmed. But that is the exact situation the state finds itself in right now.

And if the program works? Great! California is a paragon for a nationwide discussion of how to empower citizens to protect their communities against climate change: train and equip them and encourage citizen networks. Hurricanes, floods, fires, tornadoes — all-natural disasters that require significant resources to effectively fight.

State and Federal governments play a crucial role here. But why not augment it with those who stand to lose (or gain) the most from proactive and quick action? Even if the impact is only marginal, that margin could be someone’s life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. Certainly things worth fighting for.

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[1] there is a whole separate discussion on the ethics of using inmate labor and paying low wages. NPR has a good overview of this inmate economy.