IMAGE: Wildfires burn in Malibu, California
Sean Masterson  /  EPA
Outgunned firefighters prepare to battle wildfires burning in Malibu, Calif.
Image: Bill Dedman
By Bill Dedman Investigative reporter
NBC News
updated 10/23/2007 7:56:37 PM ET 2007-10-23T23:56:37

Every fall, the state of California declares the official end of the fire season. Sometimes the fires don't get the message.

Joe Mackey, a seasonal firefighter for CalFire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, got a call Oct. 12 telling him he wouldn't be needed any more this year.

"They told me I'm getting laid off. Turn my gear in the next day," Mackey said. "They didn't really give me any notice."

On Tuesday, with fires threatening thousands of homes, the state backtracked, declaring the obvious: The fire season is back on.

"They have rescinded the fire season throughout California, and they are able to hire back all fire personnel," Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, told msnbc.com Tuesday afternoon. "I can't say that they have all been rehired, but they can be rehired."

CalFire has about 1,400 seasonal employees in addition to 3,800 permanent staff, according to its Web site. It was not immediately clear whether all of the seasonal firefighters had been terminated before the Southern California fires broke out, or how many would actually be brought back. An official at one fire station said callbacks were happening unit by unit.

Joe Mackey, seasonal firefighter
Mackey Family
Joe Mackey, seasonal firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Mackey, 31, has been with the department since 1998, moving from station to station as needed. He was most recently stationed in the Chico area of Northern California, north of Sacramento, but said he would be fighting the fires in Southern California if he hadn't been laid off.

‘People don't understand’
"People don't understand that some fire departments are just summertime fire departments," he said. "We work from May to October or November. People ask, 'Why aren't you down there?' They hear on the news that they're shorthanded. I tell them I got laid off."

It's not the first time that a huge fire has happened after the firefighters are sent home. The Paradise Fire, which killed two people and destroyed 221 homes, was in October 2003. The Cedar Fire, which killed 14 people and destroyed more than 250 houses and commercial buildings, started the same month and burned into November.

"Every year, there's a possibility with the Santa Ana winds," Mackey said. "Some years they get lucky and there's only a few fires. The summer has preheated all this vegetation and there's drought, and then you get this spark and it's out of control."

Wife writes of frustration
Mackey’s wife, Laine, who sent an e-mail to msnbc.com on the layoffs, is beside herself over the situation.

"This happens every year," she said. "The Santa Ana winds help fuel huge fires that cause evacuations and millions in damage, all at the same time that the state cuts the budget and lays off thousands of firefighters, while Southern California is burning.

"We are struggling to find work and struggling to find a medical insurance company who will cover a recovering cancer patient like myself before our last 30 days is up. Yet now the state of California is in emergency and it's their own damn fault, as it is every year. Firefighters who could be helping fight the fires and providing for their own families at the same time."

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