Cal Fire Chief Discusses How Firefighters Are Battling California Blazes

Aug 9, 2018
Originally published on August 9, 2018 10:47 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A mechanic helping to fight the wildfires in California died early today. It was a reminder of how dangerous these fires are. All told, there are some 14,000 firefighters trying to contain 18 different wildfires across the state. The biggest one, the Mendocino Complex Fire, is expected to last through September. Ken Pimlott is the director of California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as Cal Fire. It's the agency leading this massive firefight. Chief Pimlott joins us now. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us during all of this.

KEN PIMLOTT: You're welcome.

CHANG: So your teams have been going nonstop for weeks and weeks now. What has it been like for you managing this huge operation?

PIMLOTT: So, you know, California has been well-practiced at responding to and coordinating disasters. And it's a team effort, all agencies across state government, not just fire agencies but law enforcement and Health & Human Services, Department of Transportation, our federal partners who have so much at stake here with the federal lands involved and many, many of our local government fire departments. It's a one, really, team effort, and it takes significant coordination, and that's what we've been working on.

CHANG: And what about your firefighters? I mean, it's been relentless. How are they holding up? What are you hearing from them?

PIMLOTT: You know, they're all in this till the end. This is what we signed up for. And they're very, very committed. Many don't want to leave the fire lines, so they want to get these fires contained. But I think it's safe to say everyone is tired - right? - and we're working very hard to give all of them a break so that we can continue this pace all summer.

CHANG: How are you doing that, giving people a break, when the pace has been just exhausting?

PIMLOTT: We look at every fire engine and every resource individually. We look at how long they've been out, and we just find targets of opportunity. When one fire gets close to containment, we're able to provide a break before we get them to the next fire. It's something we're managing all summer every day.

CHANG: Now, you've been firefighting for a long time, almost 30 years, with Cal Fire. I'm curious - how have challenges of firefighting changed over that whole time?

PIMLOTT: I will tell you straight up the challenges now from what I saw when I began several decades ago - it's the intensity, it's the speed with which these fires are burning. They - we're seeing, you know, fires go to 100,000, 200,000 acres. It's almost becoming common every fire season now. That didn't happen decades ago.

CHANG: And how is the agency adjusting its strategy or approach to firefighting because of that?

PIMLOTT: We are looking at a year-round fire season, not just one that's several months of the year. It's all year. We have staffing now that's available all year. We're bringing on, you know, additional resources at peak times during fire season. And it's the prevention efforts. We are really working on fuels treatment, prescribed fire, all of those things to try to reduce the intensity of these fires when they do occur.

CHANG: Do you think it is possible for Cal Fire to get a handle on this problem, or is this becoming a problem that's just impossible to keep up with?

PIMLOTT: Well, the - really the changing climate is leading to just these more extreme conditions, and there's, you know, millions of acres of wild land. Cal Fire is responsible for protecting 31 million acres of the wildlands in the state. We aren't - didn't get to this challenge overnight with overcrowded vegetation and forest. It's going to take us a while to continue to work on it. But we will continue not only to respond but to engage in increasing our pace and scale of forest thinning, prescribed fire and reducing the intensity. It's going to take all of it to make the difference.

CHANG: I mean, you guys can't do it all. And if this is the new normal, meaning fires on this scale happening with such frequency, what do you want to see from communities or from the government to help you in this effort?

PIMLOTT: So it takes all of us. Obviously, government has a responsibility to bring technical support, grant funding, the emergency response, leadership when it comes to these issues, but it's really going to take every community at the grassroots level, every homeowner, every citizen, to be engaged at the grassroots level to get to community defense plans put in place to ensure that this work is being done at the local level. And quite frankly, every homeowner has a responsibility to reduce the number of fires starts. Ninety-five percent of the fires in the state are started by people. And so we really have to continue to work on reducing, you know, the number of fires that start, and that starts with everyone in the state.

CHANG: Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, thank you very much.

PIMLOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.