Building California’s Forest Resilience Workforce

A Critical Gap in Increasing the Pace and Scale of Wildfire Prevention

Wildfires in California, and across the western U.S., are increasing in frequency and severity, threatening both ecosystems and communities. Restoration—a combination of ecological thinning and prescribed fire—is one of the best tools to build forest resilience and prevent catastrophic wildfires, by reducing the buildup of fuels resulting from a legacy of logging and fire suppression.

To date, workforce development for forest restoration has centered on training to increase the pipeline of new entrants. While training is an essential piece of the solution, it is not the only piece. A number of other barriers—specifically related to wages, housing, mental health and licensing requirements—must be addressed if we are to build a robust forest restoration workforce. A recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, released during the preparation of this policy brief, identified similar barriers to recruiting and retaining wildland firefighters, a significant segment of the forest restoration workforce.

This policy brief first estimates the size of the current public sector workforce gap if CAL FIRE and USFS are to deploy public funds recently allocated to scale up forest restoration and wildfire prevention. The brief then lays out key barriers beyond training and opportunities to clear them, with a focus on state and federal policy. Although the focus is on California’s public sector, because of the availability of data on the size of the current workforce, many of the barriers and potential solutions outlined are relevant to private operators, contracted out by agencies to conduct ecological thinning, prescribed burning and more lucrative wildfire suppression. Tribes also represent an important part of California’s restoration workforce, conducting cultural burning, at times using private operators, but barriers to cultural burning beyond workforce development are beyond the scope of this brief.

Attached document published June 2023

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