Retiring state fire chief warns planners, defends utilities

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott retired last week but only after giving interviews in which he called for sweeping changes in how state officials and the public think about wildfire risks. He also challenged conventional wisdom on the state’s attitude about forest thinning and on who was most responsible for starting most fires.

Pimlott told the Associated Press that local and state planners should only approve new housing projects in wilderness and canyon areas if far more efforts are made to guarantee there are easy evacuation routes and unless home fire defense measures are mandatory. He also called for much tougher building standards in so-called wilderness “interface” areas to make it more difficult for homes and commercial and government structures to burn.

“We’ve got to continue to raise the bar on what we’re doing, and local land-use planning decisions have to be part of that discussion,” Pimlott said.

His remarks were seen by some as a comment on Los Angeles County officials giving their final approval last week to a 19,000-home project at Newhall Ranch near Interstate 5, about 70 miles north of the city of Los Angeles. Project opponents said the county didn’t go nearly far enough in imposing conditions that would reduce fire risks.

Public urged to take ‘red flag’ warnings more seriously

Pimlott also said more civil defense-type programs and emergency alarm systems are needed in communities in wooded areas. And he said the public in areas at risk of wildfires needed to take “red flag” extreme danger warnings far more seriously – not as a vague and unlikely threat but as an imminent personal risk.

“The reality of it is, California has a fire-prone climate and it will continue to burn. Fire is a way of life in California and we have to learn how to live with it, we have to learn how to have more resilient communities,” he told AP.

At least if Pimlott’s warnings are taken seriously, the push for tougher building regulations in fire-prone areas will only make addressing California’s housing crisis more difficult. That’s because a mantra of housing reformers has been to reduce, not increase, state housing regulations to bring down costs. By some accounts, the Golden State has the nation’s costliest construction rules.

In an interview with the New York Times, the retiring fire official said that President Donald Trump’s assertion that poor forest management was behind the state’s awful run of monster wildfires since 2015 was misleading. He said state officials are hardly ignoring the problems caused by dead trees and thick undergrowth.

“Over the next five years, there’s over a billion dollars invested in both forest thinning and forest health projects,” Pimlott said.

Blame public, not stressed utilities, for ‘95%’ of fires

At a time when Pacific Gas & Electric and, to a lesser extent, Southern California Edison, have faced lawsuits seeking hundreds of millions in damages or more because of allegations that poorly maintained utility equipment triggered wildfires, Pimlott said there is an insufficient appreciation of how much bigger the fire threat is than just a decade ago.

“There has been negligence in some cases,” the 30-year firefighter told the Times. But he said that in most cases, “folks have complied with everything and you have winds that are blowing at 80 miles an hour, you have infrastructure that was never designed to function in these extreme conditions that we are now seeing.”

Who is most to blame for fires in the Golden State? Pimlott said the answer is the same that it’s always been.

“In reality, 95 percent of fires in California are caused by people – welding, grinding, pulling a car off the edge of the road, weeding at the wrong time of day,” he said.

Pimlott told the Times that he intends to spend much of his time in retirement on a 70-acre parcel in a heavily forested area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The parcel was badly scorched by a 2014 wildfire.


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  1. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 19 December, 2018, 13:30

    With all due respect to our retiring State Fire Chief, his recommendations are like trying to stop a hemorrhage with a Band-Aid. If local officials insist on approving housing and other development in wilderness areas or hillsides or floodplains, etc., there are no mitigations that will prevent disasters.

    California is not a perpetually-expanding Paradise that can absorb an unlimited number of people and our paraphernalia. Local officials are addicted to tax revenue, they need a Twelve-Step group, not another fix. The Fire Chief is an enabler, and what he is offering is a formula for obtaining more fixes without the guilt.

    He blames the people for the fires. Well, that’s an easy one. Either accidentally or on purpose, hardly any of the huge fires was started by Nature. But, he forgets that if a lot of fires are started accidentally by people doing things with their stuff, it means some public officials somewhere said they could be where they are doing what they did.

    And, now that we are being told there is a housing shortage, what excuse can there be for failing to approve a new project?

    I think it is time for a Reality Check and an Attitude Adjustment. Just say No! to housing in the wilderness, housing on the hillsides, housing in the flood plains, housing on the Earthquake Faults, housing on the cliffs, housing by the seashore, housing next to ballfields, housing next to airports, housing next to industrial projects, etc.

    Unlimited Growth is not a realistic model for a mature economy, I don’t care what anyone says. There is a point at which the acquisition of wealth becomes a disease, not a productive economic activity.

    No, I am not a socialist. I am for free trade and free markets, but not for giving giant corporations special dispensation to wreck our lives.

    Thank you.

    Reply this comment
  2. ricky65
    ricky65 21 December, 2018, 09:02

    …..”Just say No! to housing in the wilderness, housing on the hillsides, housing in the flood plains, housing on the Earthquake Faults, housing on the cliffs, housing by the seashore, housing next to ballfields, housing next to airports, housing next to industrial projects”

    I guess if we took your advice there is no place in California to build homes.
    But we sure appreciate your free market, freedom and liberty loving comments!
    (Whew! …what a nut job!)

    Reply this comment
  3. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 21 December, 2018, 11:25

    Well, I’m glad you understood what I was saying. California used to be a wonderful place to live, but Progress has destroyed most of its charm. I am not against new, I am against ugly and unnecessary.

    America had a free market back in the old days before industry was given leave to run roughshod over everybody and everything else.

    The housing crisis is a fake emergency. And, no matter what anybody says, California has no need to build anything in places where Mother Nature has all the high cards.

    Reply this comment
    • ricky65
      ricky65 22 December, 2018, 09:12

      So “Progress has destroyed most of its charm”?
      Yeah, that progress is a bad thing all right. We NIMBY’s prefer the “regressive ” policies of the left. Back to the caves, you people!
      No carbon, no cars, no Co2, no jobs, no industry, no freedom, nothing but government to make our decisions for us.
      Interesting the retired fire chief in the story is retiring to 70 acres of forested serenity in the Sierras. I’m thinking its probably to get away from NIMBY idiots in the urban areas trying to direct everyone else’s lives. Hell, that’s why I’m up here in the Sierras too. We call it freedom to make choices as we desire-not you.

      Reply this comment
      • Standing Fast
        Standing Fast 22 December, 2018, 09:44

        So, you agree with me that Progress is ugly and unnecessary?

        For the record, I did say I am not against everything new. Nor did I say that I am against the internal combustion engine, fossil fuels, private automobiles, or free enterprise. I said I was against abusive practices in industry. I do not “prefer the ‘regressive’ policies of the left.”

        A person can be a Libertarian or Conservative and oppose polluting, toxic chemicals in consumer products, mistreating employees, and government intervention into the economy except for what is necessary to protect the public. There is a Libertarian-Conservative way of doing these things, or could be if people who say they oppose big government solutions would say they think property rights are reciprocal, like Liberty.

        Meaning that the rights of developers and real-estate investors are no greater than the rights of the people who are already here. Industrial development does not belong in residential neighborhoods, or even anywhere near them. It is not a sign of prosperity to ruin people’s lives so someone else can make a buck. New development should always be beneficial to the existing neighborhood.

        Crony capitalism is not a free market system because it creates a special class of favored industries and corporations. That is against the principles of free trade where all participants are on a level playing field. Liberty is not about doing whatever you want without regard to others. It is about doing whatever you want as long as it causes no harm to others.

        “Liberty is a power to do as we would be done by.”
        John Adams, 1819

        Merry Christmas!

        Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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