Meet the California firefighter ‘super commuters’ traveling 2,000 miles for work | California [wafact]

“Is it OK if I talk from the car?” asked Kyle Conforti, a 40-year-old firefighter who works at the Orange county fire authority (OCFA) in southern California. There is still some last-minute preparation – suitcases to pack, bills to cancel and goodbyes to say – before the big day. Tomorrow, Conforti, his wife, Roxanne, and their two young kids will begin a 2,000-mile, cross-country drive from San Luis Obispo county to their new home in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

In a few weeks, Conforti will arrive back in California to punch in at the same firehouse for another work shift.

The Confortis are part of an exodus from California that ramped up in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, when 725,000 people left the Golden state. While residents from other states do continue to move in, the state’s overall population still declined by 138,000 in 2022. “It is a remarkable turnaround for California – long the epicenter of population growth in the United States,” wrote Hans Johnson and Eric McGhee from the Public Policy Institute of California in a recent blog post.

First responders, like Conforti, make up a segment of this larger trend. Firefighters, as well as police officers and nurses, are moving their families to faraway states – including Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, Montana, Texas, Alabama, Florida, Hawaii and Alaska – and commuting back into California for work. The ability to “stack” work shifts into consecutive chunks (up to 10 days in some cases) makes the “super-commuting” lifestyle more feasible.

As it is for many people deciding to leave the state, a multitude of factors play a role, including lifestyle and education choices, politics and taxes, as well as concerns over rising homelessness, crime, drugs and safety. But common threads are California’s high cost of living and a harder time switching between home and work life.

“[The rise in cost of living] outpaces my raises and income. So we finally just ran the numbers and figured out it would be cheaper to live out of state and have me commute back,” said Conforti.

California has consistently been one of the most expensive US states to live in. In 2023, it has the US’s fourth-highest cost of living after Hawaii, Massachusetts and Washington DC.

“Working-class Californians are caught between two competing pressures. They are increasingly frustrated by the cost of living, but they also greatly value the state’s culture and diversity,” said Daniel Schnur, a professor of political communications at UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California. “Many of those who threaten to leave for economic reasons end up staying because they feel more comfortable here for other reasons. Some Republicans and other conservatives leave for political and policy reasons, but most simply can’t afford to live here anymore. Their first instinct is to move from coastal areas to less expensive places in the eastern part of the state, but many others just keep on going.”

At the OCFA, Conforti averaged between 72 and 96 hours a week, while his wife worked as a nurse in Los Angeles. Even with their combined income of around $160,000, the couple had trouble keeping up with the rise in rent, taxes, fuel prices and childcare, he said. Originally from Nipomo, California (where Dorothea Lange took the famous photo Migrant Mother), the Confortis had always planned to return to the area and purchase their first home. “A lot of our friends and family are still there, so it would have made everything easier, especially with how expensive childcare is in California,” said Conforti.

Then Covid-19 hit. “Everyone moved out from the big cities, and it just got too expensive there,” Conforti said. San Luis Obispo county, where Nipomo is located, is one of the 10 fastest-growing counties in the state. According to a report released this month by the California Association of Realtors, the county “requires a minimum income of $216,800 to purchase a median-priced home.” The same report states that in the second quarter of 2023, housing affordability fell in 47 of California’s 58 counties.

In Tennessee, grasses seem greener. When they arrive, the Confortis will step onto an acre of land “with a stream that runs into a lake.” They’ve purchased a four-room, two-bathroom house, which is also their first as homeowners. “At least now we’re putting money into something, rather than throwing it away on rent,” said Conforti.

A firefighter pouring water on scarred vegetation.
A firefighter is on scene of a vegetation fire near Clayton Rd in hills east of San Jose, California, on 3 August 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While the financial outlook for the Confortis seems more positive in Tennessee, the commuting lifestyle will take some getting used to. In September, Conforti will begin Ubering 30 minutes to Nashville international airport, where he’ll take a direct flight to either Los Angeles international airport, John Wayne airport in Orange County or Long Beach airport, and then take another Uber to the OCFA firehouse. He plans to work for 10 days and nights (including a one-day rest required by the fire department) before returning to Tennessee for the remainder of the month.

More consecutive time at home, Conforti hopes, will improve his overall mental health and lower his stress levels. “At the firehouse, we have to stay at a constant level of readiness,” he said. “You’re always at a high idle.” While living in California, Conforti often had only two days between his four- day/night shifts. This made the switch from “work brain” to “home brain” difficult: “I’d get home smashed, and that’s not fair to my family. My wife and I would barely even see each other, between our two schedules. We were working too much to just be scraping by.”

The OCFA did not provide a number of its force who live out of state, but Conforti estimates it to be around 60, out of about 1,100. The nearby Los Angeles city fire department (LAFD) reported in 2021 that 115 of its 3,348 members lived outside California. That number had risen to 160 in 2023, the LAFD confirmed.

Scott Hawkins, a 44-year-old fire captain at OCFA, became a super commuter last year, after 23 years in California. Hawkins and his family moved to Meridian, Idaho, about 20 minutes west of Boise. Idaho is the country’s second-fastest-growing state, and, since the latest nationwide census in 2020, Meridian’s population has grown 16.45%, to around 139,000. Hawkins said he’s not the first firefighter to move here from California, and that he certainly won’t be the last.

The impetus behind the Hawkins’s move started out as a financial one. For one, his pension – a fixed payment – would eventually go further in the Gem state, which has a steady 5.8% income tax (compared to California’s bracket-based system, which can range from 1% to 12.3%). Hawkins said that prior to the move, any raises he earned would often be canceled out by inflation or rising gas prices.

Another motivation was his children’s education. Hawkins and his wife couldn’t find themselves represented in certain parts of the curriculum in California’s public school system. Private schools in the state were too expensive, he said.

During the pandemic, the couple opposed California governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to require schoolchildren to be vaccinated for Covid-19 before they could return to school. “We’re not anti-vaxxers by any means, but we wanted to be able to make those decisions for our own kids,” said Hawkins.

One year later, the Hawkins say their decision to move seems to be the right one. “It’s super cheap to take the family out to a ballgame here,” said Hawkins. What’s more, he estimates there to be around 30 other firefighters living in the area from the OCFA alone, not to mention those from other fire and police departments in the Golden state. Hawkins said he’s also seeing more nurses from California arriving: a friend works at Scripps Mercy hospital in San Diego, while her husband is a sheriff in Idaho. The presence of so many other first responders has made the transition easier. One local church even has a support group for the wives of super commuters.

A firefighter monitors a blaze during the Mosquito fire near Foresthill, California, on 7 September 2022.
A firefighter monitors a blaze during the Mosquito fire near Foresthill, California, on 7 September 2022. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Back in California, there’s ambivalence about the growing number of out-of-staters. Residency requirements – which mandate firefighters to live within a certain distance of their firehouses – exist in departments across the US. In 2021, the LAFD considered imposing one, but talks stalled. “The division and fire chiefs don’t care where you live as long as your shifts get done,” said Hawkins.

Still, the out-of-state setup has caused some staffing snafus. Last winter, when massive storms and freezing temperatures grounded flights across the US, some OCFA firefighters living in other states were not able to find a way back to southern California. Instead, the local ones were called upon to pick up their shifts, including on Christmas Day.

Hawkins and Conforti said that although the super-commuting setup allows them to be home for longer consecutive periods of time, the extra travel required and stacked work shifts also take them farther from their families and for more days at a time. It’s a constant tradeoff, and both stressed the importance of having a spouse willing to support the untraditional lifestyle. “Before we made the move, a friend who was already doing this told me, ‘You need a strong wife to make this work. If your wife isn’t on board, it won’t,’” said Hawkins.

Although Conforti has yet to get the super-commuting life in full swing, he is optimistic, yet realistic: “I don’t like being so far away from my family.” He and his wife, who found a nursing job in Nashville, have decided to try out the arrangement for two years and reassess afterwards. Says Conforti, “If we could afford to live in California, we 100 % would not have moved.”

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