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Industry Insights

CAAA: Cal Fire Battles More Than Flames

  • State: California

The California Legislature has maintained a laser focus on combating wildfires, in part because of the breathtaking cost to suppress them: In the last 10 years, Cal Fire has pulled $7.5 billion from the state emergency fund to fight fires, including about $1.2 billion in 2022.

Despite the large investment, the funds have not kept pace with staffing or personnel needs: Days with extreme fire risk have more than doubled in California over the last 40 years, yet as of June 1, only 126 out of 236 hand crews were fully staffed. High stress, low pay and the ongoing difficulties with the workers' compensation system contribute significantly to the high turnover rates and the worsening mental health crisis within Cal Fire.

As fire season begins, California's firefighting agency, Cal Fire, is still grappling with a severe mental health crisis among its ranks. Exacerbated by a grueling workload and inadequate support systems, approximately 10% of its workforce quit in 2022. Many firefighters are forced to work for weeks without rest, leading to widespread fatigue and mental distress, which is then intensified when their workers’ compensation claims for post-traumatic stress disorder are frequently denied. The agency's slow response to these issues is causing veteran firefighters to leave, further depleting the organization of essential experience and knowledge.

The workers' comp process is particularly arduous for firefighters due to the difficulty in finding mental health providers willing to accept workers' compensation cases, especially in rural areas where many firefighters live. The culture of stoicism and stigma surrounding mental health in the firefighting profession also hinders effective diagnosis and treatment. This means that firefighters may not seek the help they need, potentially leading to untreated mental health issues that can impair job performance.

Despite a state law enacted in 2020 and extended in 2023 that made PTSD a presumptive condition for workers' compensation benefits, Cal Fire's system still heavily stacks against mental health claims. A significant percentage of PTSD claims is denied compared to other medical conditions, reflecting a systemic issue within the workers' comp process. 

Legislation passed in 2022 shortened the investigation period for PTSD claims from 90 to 60 days so claims would be presumed eligible if not rejected within this time frame. However, even with these legislative changes, many firefighters continue to struggle with a system that is more focused on cost containment than on providing timely and adequate mental health support.

This opinion by the California Applicants' Attorneys Association communications team is republished with permission from the CAAA website.

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