The new Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had strong feelings about climate change before that was cool. (And some people still deny climate change, the moon landings, and they think the Earth is flat.)
Thom Porter was appointed Director of CAL FIRE by Governor Gavin Newsom on January 8, replacing Ken Pimlott who retired December 15, 2018.
In 2009, ten years after he began working for CAL FIRE, Mr. Porter was featured in a 90-second video produced by Greenpeace USA in which he talked about how climate change was affecting wildland fire.
Below is a partial transcript from the video:
As a firefighter I’m a student of the weather, and I’ve noticed that there’s a change that’s occurred in the last several years.
These patterns are not what I have grown up with. They are also not what I have seen in the historical record. We’re starting to see more monsoonal type of weather that’s causing more dry lightning which ignites fires — sometimes thousands of fires in a 24-hour period. We’re stretched for resources when that happens. We don’t have enough fire engines and aircraft to take care of all those fires.
California has a very diverse economy. A lot of it depends on water. If the climate changes and we don’t have the water we need to support that business or the people who live here, we could see all of society start to have to move out of certain areas. California could dry up and blow away.
Before his appointment by the Governor, Chief Porter had served as Chief of Strategic Planning in CAL FIRE’s Sacramento Headquarters since January 1, 2018.
Prior to his CAL FIRE career, Chief Porter worked as a forester in the timber industry in Washington, Oregon and California, developing timber harvesting plans, planning and directing prescribed burns, and managing company safety programs.
He signed on with CAL FIRE in 1999 as a Forester I in the Forestry Assistance Program at the Southern Operations Center. He eventually served as the Southern Region Chief, Assistant Region Chief, and San Diego Unit Chief.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in forest management from the University of California Berkeley and is a Registered Professional Forester.
Thank you, Chief Pimlott, for your years of dedicated service and leadership. I’m honored by the opportunity to serve as CAL FIRE’s Director and continue positioning the department as a leader in forest management and fire protection. pic.twitter.com/IZKgWHOwr3
Jurisdictions need to develop standards for structures, the home ignition zone, and community infrastructure
In the weeks after 86 people were killed and over 14,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in the Camp Fire at Paradise, California three influential individuals and organizations urged the consideration of banning or restricting development in areas that are at high risk from wildfires.
First there was the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board on November 24 writing that “To rebuild Paradise as it was, would be land-use malpractice.” The Board continued, “The question facing state and local authorities is whether Paradise — and other towns that have burned — can be rebuilt to withstand the next, inevitable wildfire. If not, how does California relocate communities and restrict new construction while respecting property rights and not worsening the state’s affordable housing crisis? At a minimum, cities should remap fire-prone areas and focus reconstruction in areas with lower risk. “
Five days before he retired on December 15 Ken Pimlott, Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying officials should consider banning home construction in areas vulnerable to wildfires.
Cities, counties, and planning boards (where they exist) are often under pressure to approve new housing developments. They want to expand their tax base. Developers try to fit as many homes into a new subdivision as possible to maximize their investment. This too often results in homes that are 20-feet apart. If one is ignited by a burning ember that may have traveled a quarter of a mile from a fire (or a burning home) the radiant heat alone can ignite the homes on both sides. Then you can have a self-powered conflagration spreading house to house through a city. As long as the structures are that close together, the homeowners have not reduced the fuel in the Home Ignition Zone within 100 feet of the structure, and the home itself is not built to FireWise standards, a massive disaster can be the result.
The NFPA and the FireWise program recommend reducing flammable material within 100 feet of structures, and spacing trees at least 18 feet apart that are within 30 feet of the home. At the 60 to 100-foot distance tree canopies should be at least 6 feet apart. Another house that is 15 to 50 feet away is also fuel and if it ignites will be a serious threat.
If a homeowner wants, or is required, to reduce the flammable material within 100 feet of their residence, what are they expected to do if there is another home 20 feet away that is really a large assembly of flammable material?
Some of the homes in Paradise, California that burned were less than 20 feet apart. According to measurements using Google Earth, the structures in the photo at the top of this article were 14 to 18 feet from each other.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology released a report on the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Colorado in June, 2012. They concluded that current concepts of defensible space did not account for hazards of burning primary structures, hazards presented by embers, and the hazards outside of the home ignition zone. In addition, NIST recommended:
High-density structure-to-structure spacing in a community should be identified and considered in [Wildland Urban Interface] fire response plans. In the Waldo Canyon fire, the majority of homes destroyed were ignited by fire and embers coming from other nearby residences already on fire. Based on this observation, the researchers concluded that structure spatial arrangements in a community must be a major consideration when planning for WUI fires.
After studying the Carr Fire that destroyed 1,079 residences at Redding, California earlier this year, retired CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Royal Burnett reached similar conclusions.
It was easy to figure out why the houses on the rim burned — they were looking right down the barrel of a blowtorch. Even though they had fire resistant construction, many had loaded their patios with flammable lawn furniture, tiki bars and flammable ornamental plants. Palm trees became flaming pillars, shredded bark became the fuse, junipers became napalm bombs. Under current standards houses are build 6 to an acre; 10 feet to the property line and only 20 feet between houses. Once one house ignited, radiant heat could easily torch the next one.
We have to learn to live with fire
Reducing the chances that a fire in a populated area will turn into a disaster that burns thousands of homes involves at least three categories of factors, in addition to weather:
Envelope of the structure itself: characteristics of the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home.
Home Ignition Zone, as described above — topography and fuel within 100 feet.
Community infrastructure and planning: distance to nearby structures, evacuation capability, safety zones, road and driveway width, turnarounds at the end of roads, signage, and emergency water supply. Again, the FEMA document has great recommendations.
Someone asked me recently what needs to be done to keep from repeating disasters like we have seen within the last year at Paradise, Redding, and the Napa Valley. I told him that there is no one thing that needs to be done, such as raking or “forest management”, it requires a comprehensive holistic approach.
The items we have listed here only apply within communities. There is of course much that can be done surrounding the places where people live that would reduce the vegetation or fuel and decrease the intensity and ember generation potential of a fire as it approaches an urban area. Large scale fuel management including fuel breaks and prescribed fire programs are usually conducted by state and federal agencies.
The weakest link in the chain principle applies here. If one of these categories is sub-par, the individual structures and the entire community in a fire-prone environment is at risk. And if a homeowner does not do their part, it can endanger their neighbors.
The warming climate is demonstrating that wildfires are becoming increasingly perilous. It is unlikely that local governments or states are going to ban development in fire-prone environments, but it is their responsibility to protect their citizens by enacting sensible standards.
This is a 1 minute clip from a piece on Sunday’s edition of 60 Minutes in which Ken Pimlott, Chief of CAL FIRE, describes how the Camp Fire was growing during its first burning period at “one football field per second”. I assume he means it was consuming 1.3 acres per second which is the size of an American football field, rather than the rate of spread of the flaming front. The video shows one of those cool sand tables onto which a computer projects a spreading wildfire. They are excellent for training exercises and modeling fire behavior.
This clip was taken from a very good 10 to 15 minute piece on Sunday’s 60 Minutes about the Camp Fire, and is worth checking out. You can see the entire 42-minute show on the CBS website including the section on the fire, but you’ll have to watch the commercials.
In an interview Friday with KPIX, Ken Pimlott Chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection addressed the criticism lobbed Wednesday at California by President Trump during a cabinet meeting. The President said in part:
California’s a mess. We’re giving billions and billions of dollars for forest fires in California. There’s no reason for those fires to be like they are…
So I think California oughta get their act together and clean up their forests and manage their forests because it’s disgraceful.
What’s happening should never happen. I go all over the country. When I meet with governors the first thing they say is there’s no reason for forest fires like that in California.
Outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs.
Above: Wolverine Fire in Washington, August 16, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.
For several years the Obama administration and a few lawmakers have been been trying to convince Congress to change how wildfires are funded so that fire prevention, fuels management, and non-fire related programs in the federal agencies are not cannibalized to pay for emergency operations and the suppression of fires. There have been a number of these attempts but many have been hobbled by combining the proposals with unrelated provisions related to, for example, weakening or eliminating some environmental regulations related to timber harvesting.
The Los Angeles Times has published an op ed on the topic written by Senator Diane Feinstein and CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott. Below is an excerpt:
“…In the face of climate change and drought, longer and more severe fire seasons are to be expected. But last year the United States also suffered more catastrophic fires. These fires are natural disasters, as destructive as many hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But that’s not how the federal government treats them, or pays for them.
If it had been massive storms that caused [the] extraordinary devastation [seen in the fires in 2015], and their costs outstripped the budget for disaster response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies could access additional federal funding to pay for cleanup and recovery. In contrast, wildfire response remains subject to strict spending limits, regardless of a fire’s severity. Worse, outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs that remove dead trees and brush from forests.
This shortsighted practice means that as the Forest Service spends more on combating huge fires, it has less to spend on preventing them.
The agency must be allowed to pay for fighting extraordinary wildfires similarly to how FEMA and other agencies pay for disaster responses. The response to Hurricane Sandy did not come at the expense of routine maintenance on levees to prevent future floods. Likewise, the Forest Service’s firefighting costs should not come at the expense of routine brush clearance and maintenance that help prevent future wildfires.
Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress agree that this problem needs fixing. Last year’s Senate version of the appropriations bill to fund the Forest Service provided a simple solution: It would have allowed the agency to access a separate stream of federal funds, unconstrained by government-wide spending limits, to combat wildfires during an above-average fire season.
This concept has broad, bipartisan support. It has been included in other proposals from members of Congress who represent Western states and is supported by the Obama administration.
Despite that consensus, the fix was not included in the spending bill passed last December because some lawmakers requested additional reforms related the Forest Service’s long-term budget outlook, while others requested contentious changes to how the agency manages national forests and conducts environmental reviews.
Robbing fire prevention accounts to fight fires makes no sense and needs to end as soon as possible. A straightforward, narrow fix to the federal wildfire budgeting process is uncontroversial and needed urgently. Congress should pass the budget fix on its own now and buy time to find consensus on broad reforms…”
More allegations of improper activities have emerged about the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s firefighter academy in Ione.
They are still dealing with repercussions from earlier scandals. Within the last year one of the instructors was convicted of the murder of his mistress, and 16 either resigned, were fired, or were disciplined. All of the disciplined employees were replaced at the academy following charges that included drinking on duty, using state property to meet with prostitutes, and sexual harassment. In March Ken Pimlott, Director of CAL FIRE, felt the need to deal publicly with the scandal when he addressed the issue in a Legislature budget hearing.
Now according to the Sacramento Bee there are new allegations of questionable practices related to administering tests at the school. Below is an excerpt from the article:
For more than an hour in August 2014, Shannon Browne sat with investigators at CHP’s Valley Division office in Sacramento, at first hesitant, then growing more confident as she laid out her concerns. Instructors were manipulating scores on tests at Cal Fire’s firefighting academy in Ione, she told the officers.
“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we’re not teaching this correctly,’ and keeping (the questions) … they were just passing students,” Browne said during a 70-minute interview recorded by the investigators. “They were going to pass everyone … and I know that this is a safety issue. This is someone’s safety and life, and other people are depending on them. … They (the cadets) should not be passed if they don’t know the material. I mean, these are critical basic skills.”