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Official: California Must Mull Home Ban In Fire-Prone Areas

Residences were leveled by the wildfire in Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
Associated Press
Residences were leveled by the wildfire in Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
Official: California Must Mull Home Ban In Fire-Prone Areas
Official: California Must Mull Home Ban In Fire-Prone Areas GUEST:Ken Pimlott, director, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

Fire is a way of life in California and we have to learn how to live with it. Those words are from the outgoing head of California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Ken Pimlott one way he suggests of living with increasingly frequent and dangerous fires is to keep new housing construction out of rural vulnerable areas. That is not welcome advice in a state facing a critical housing shortage. But Pimlott a 30 year firefighting veteran says we owe taking such precautions to homeowners firefighters and communities. Joining me now by Skype is California's Forestry and Fire Protection director Ken Pimlott. And Ken welcome to the program. Thank you. Now in your interview with The Associated Press this week you said you've seen fire conditions worsen in California all through your 30 plus year career. Can you elaborate on that. How have they gotten worse. Well the one telling sign is that the indicators that we track the three indicators the most destructive the most deadly and the largest fires in the state's history of all occurred within the last several months. And this has been trending for the last several years as we keep breaking records in terms of those trends. And over the decades you know the 100000 acre fire historic it was maybe the exception to the rule. He may get one or two of those a year. Now they're becoming the norm will have multiple large fires going at the same time and these are occurring at all times of the year. Now there's been a debate about whether climate change is causing California's fires to get worse. But you say there's really no good debate among firefighters. They are living climate change. They are living climate change every day. Fire season is really a year round operation now and our firefighters are working literally months at a time and a process or organization that was originally built on a more seasonal nature. We're finding that we're we're having to be ready to go and work all year and so it's taking its toll obviously across the board on firefighters not just Cal Fire but the entire system in California that relies on our federal and local government partners in this overall response so it is actually firefighters who are feeling the impacts every day. These fires are burning more intensely. They're lasting longer and as you said there are much more destructive both in lives and property. You would find California residents and officials to start addressing wildfires differently. So what kinds of changes should they make. So meeting the challenge of the wildfire problem in California is a multipronged approach. Lots of discussion we've had this summer about forest management and treating the vegetation and that is critical. Governor Brown and this Legislature have committed unprecedented amounts of funding in the last several years. Over the next five years almost a billion dollars will be committed to forest health forest management reducing the fuel loading fire prevention projects creating fuel breaks around communities significant effort going forward. Prescribed fire. That's one sort of a leg of this triangle. Another key piece is our fire prevention public education. And then lastly it's really working on the land use planning and this is nothing new. We've talked about all of this for a long time but I think that the campfire and the Woolsey the fire in Los Angeles County just really brought it back home for us again this year. And it's it's not about banning a building in the wild urban interface. We're going to be moving and living as you talked about the housing situation in the state. I mean it's a complex issue and so people are going to live in these areas but we've got to be able to look forward doing it in a way that's smart in terms of understanding the risks learning from these fires that have occurred how can we take a look at all levels of government particularly working with local government and the state to work together with the insurance community real estate community and many others to identify where are those communities that are most at risk. And I can tell you there's hundreds of those around California. What kinds of areas do you think should not be developed. Well I think we need to be looking at the things that we've seen that are critical you know putting structures in canyons where the wind is funneled and becomes so intense where there are limited or no access routes there aren't roads or maybe there's only one road in and out areas where the topography of limiting access and exacerbating the weather conditions so how do we look at those identify that and develop our building around that so that it's that smart so we take all these things into consideration. And obviously the building construction itself. We've got some of the most strict urban interface building codes and standards in California of anywhere in the country going forward. It's obviously putting that into place and using those standards in our construction but so much of our construct June is what you would consider to be legacy construction. These are these were homes and structures built decades ago that were built prior to some of these codes and so how do we look backwards and help with retrofitting and provide incentives to homeowners to help upgrade their homes so that they can be more fire resistive. Now we had a fire in San Diego County last year the LifeLock fire which happened near three proposed housing developments. The developers say they are building so residents can shelter in place. Does that make it OK in your opinion. I think that's one of many mitigation factors that we need to be looking at. I can tell you that in Paradise residents were saved because it was they were able to evacuate and firefighters sheltered them in commercial businesses and firefighters protected those buildings while the residents were inside. And so what it's told us is that these fires are moving so quickly. Our first priority is always to evacuate the communities but when these fires move this fast there just may not be that opportunity every time. So how do we predesignated hardened areas where they can come and be protected and have the firefighters there to ensure their safety and wait for the fire front to pass until they can then be safely evacuated incorporating those kinds of measures into new developments among many other things. We talked about access and water supplies and other kinds of building construction that resistive to fire all those are critical of going into a new development. Well how could California put land use restrictions in place because of potential fire hazards. Do you think it would have to be a state law. Well there are already laws on the books that address reviewing the safety elements and the hazard mitigation plans that go into our county general plans Cal Fire and our local fire agencies are working with local land use planning officials to provide that technical information so that they can build these communities. We already identified very high fire hazard severity zones by law throughout California. So communities have this information readily at hand and now it's just making difficult decisions at the local level to how to position this how to work with communities developers the insurance industry real estate all the partners working together to really provide the incentives. Recognizing this is a complex problem. There isn't a one size fits all but we have to get to the table and continue to work on this because these fire challenges are going to only get worse as we've been seeing over the last several years. Can you officially retired tomorrow. Will you remain involved in firefighting initiatives or education. So right now the plan is to take a break you know reset had a long rewarding career in public service with Cal Fire and others and I want to just take that opportunity to have a break and then I haven't decided yet. But certainly with a long public service desire very interested in all these subjects we are talking about and certainly have a commitment to it. I've been speaking with the outgoing head of California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Ken Pimlott. Ken thank you very much. You're welcome. Thank you.

California's increasingly deadly and destructive wildfires have become so unpredictable that government officials should consider banning home construction in vulnerable areas, the state's top firefighter says.

Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott will leave his job Friday after 30 years with the agency. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said government and citizens must act differently to protect lives and property from fires that now routinely threaten large populations.

That may mean rethinking subdivisions in thickly forested mountainous areas or homes along Southern California canyons lined with tinder-dry chaparral. Yet Los Angeles County supervisors stung by California's housing shortage approved a massive rural housing development Tuesday despite the fire danger.

Developers said the 19,000-home community in rugged mountains 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of downtown Los Angeles would be built to minimize fire hazards with anti-ember construction and buffers around homes. It would include four new fire stations and roads wide enough to help people evacuate from an area the state has designated as a "high" and "very high" fire hazard zone.

Faced with such dangers, California residents should train themselves to respond more quickly to warnings and make preparations to shelter in place if they can't outrun the flames, Pimlott said.

Communities in fire zones need to harden key buildings with fireproof construction similar to the way cities prepare for earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes, and should prepare commercial or public buildings to withstand fires with the expectation hundreds may shelter there as they did in makeshift fashion when flames last month largely destroyed the Sierra Nevada foothills city of Paradise in Northern California.

California already has the nation's most robust building requirement programs for new homes in fire-prone areas, but recent fire seasons underscore more is needed. Officials must consider prohibiting construction in particularly vulnerable areas, said Pimlott, who has led the agency through the last eight years under termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown.

He said it's uncertain if those decisions should be made by local land managers or at the state level as legislative leaders have suggested. But Pimlott said "we owe it" to homeowners, firefighters and communities "so that they don't have to keep going through what we're going through."

"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," he said.

California's population has doubled since 1970 to nearly 40 million, pushing urban sprawl into mountain subdivisions, areas home to fast-burning grasslands and along scenic canyons and ridgetops that are susceptible to fires. After a crippling drought, the last two years have seen the worst fires in state history. November's fire in the northern California town of Paradise was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century, killing at least 85 people and destroying nearly 14,000 homes.

A year earlier, a fire that ripped through the San Francisco Bay Area city of Santa Rosa killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes and other structures.

Every year since at least 2013, firefighters did not anticipate California's wildfires could get worse, Pimlott said. But each year the fires have increased in intensity — driven by dry fuels, an estimated 129 million drought- and bark beetle-killed trees, and climate change.

In response, the state is doing more planned burning to eliminate brush and dead trees that serve as fuels for wildfires. The state will also add seven large firefighting aircraft, replace a dozen aging helicopters, provide firefighter counseling and ensure that firefighters have enough time off for medical checkups to help them manage the mental and physical stress from a fire season that now never ends.

He said California leads the nation in clearing away dead trees and thinning forested areas that are crowded with trees that can fuel fires, contrary to criticism by President Donald Trump who has blamed forest mismanagement for the fires.

"No other state, or even the federal government, are putting the amount of investment into this space as California," Pimlott said.

The department's philosophy for many years has been to stamp out fires quickly to protect people and property. Prescribed burns were previously used sparingly out of concern they could get out of control, but he said the department is making "a sea change" by recognizing that starting fires under optimum conditions is a good way to reduce dangerous fuels.

Recent fires that have burned into cities have made clear that those protections need to be centered around vulnerable communities, he said. Paradise, for example, was built on a ridge atop steep canyons that helped channel the wind-driven fire, while wildfires have repeatedly blown into Northern and Southern California subdivisions from neighboring wildlands thick with tinder-dry fuel.

Pimlott rose through the ranks from seasonal firefighter to deputy director of fire protection before his appointment as chief of the agency. In that role he doubles as the state's chief forester and oversees a department that includes nearly 8,000 firefighters, forest managers and support staff.

He said he has seen fire conditions worsen each passing year during his three decades with the agency, taking its toll on residents and firefighters alike.

"Folks can say what they want to say, but firefighters are living climate change. It's staring them in the face every day," he said.

To adapt, he advocates wildfire warning systems that not only use new technology like automated phone calling systems, but maybe restoring civil defense-style emergency sirens in some areas. City planners must prepare communities "unlike we ever have before" with easy evacuation routes and new evacuation centers.

And he said Californians must treat "red flag" extreme fire danger warnings the way Midwesterners treat tornado warnings — as imminent threats.

"The reality of it is, California has a fire-prone climate and it will continue to burn," he said. "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."