SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – The head of Cal Fire spoke to KPIX 5 Friday during an exclusive sit-down interview, giving him a chance to discount President Trump’s recent claims that California’s destructive wildfires are a result of “incompetence” by state officials.
The president initially tweeted about the wildfires in the state back in August, blaming the wildfires on bad environmental laws and water regulation
In recent campaign speeches, he has made similar claims.
“Everyone says, ‘There’s no reason for forest fires like that in California.’ But it’s costing our country hundreds of billions of dollars because of incompetence in California,” the president said this week.
Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott was diplomatic in his response, but he clearly disagreed.
“Well, certainly when I heard them… they’re puzzling,” said Pimlott. “But just to be frank, they’re uninformed and couldn’t be further from the truth. There is so much going on in California.”
Back in August, White House officials declined to offer any clarity on Trump’s series of tweets claiming environmental laws and water regulations in California are hampering the state’s ability to fight the wildfires. Wildfire experts and local officials say the President’s claims simply don’t hold up.
Instead, some White House officials admitted to being slightly perplexed at where Trump may have gotten the notion that California’s long-running water crisis and a debate over how to divide limited supplies are somehow related to the out of control fires.
Pimlott also spoke to the claim that the state is not managing its forest land:
“A billion dollars over the next five years will be spent on direct engagement of projects on the ground,” explained Pimlott. “And looking at California, over half of the forest land in California is federal land. Our national forests. So when we’re talking about the landscape, it’s as much if not more of a federal responsibility as it is state or private.”
When asked if President Trump had ever spoken with him or anyone from Cal Fire, Pimlott confirmed that he had not.
“President Trump has not directly engaged our agency,” said Pimlott. “Vice President Pence made a personal visit to California on behalf of the administration and thanked Cal Fire and all of the responding agencies for the fall fire siege. I have not spoken with the President.”
The Cal Fire chief additionally addressed the current wildfire threat in the state.
“The threat is throughout California and it’s significant. We still haven’t recovered from five years of drought. The vegetation is critically dry. Yes it’s true our forests, whether they are private or public, are overstocked,” Pimlott said.
He continued: “It’s from excluding fire for so many years. because we’re protecting homes and infrastructure. We’ve got 129 million dead trees in the central and southern Sierra due to bark beetles infestations. There has been no rain to take us out of fire season, and that’s true from the northern end of the state to the South.”
However, with a fresh injection of funding, Cal Fire is taking new steps to fighting fires in the North Bay and around the state.
In Sonoma County on Friday, Cal Fire staged its first prescribed burn of the year. It’s also evidence of the state’s new approach to fighting fire.
The fire burned 35 acres over the course of the afternoon. The controlled burn in Salt Point State Park was possible, in part, thanks to governor Browns May commitment of $96 million for preventative measures.
That additional sum will be added to the $800 million the state already spends in vegetation management and fire prevention. It makes a big difference in what firefighters can get done.
The additional money allows seasonal staff to stay on the job longer — well past the traditional end of the fire season — and help combat future fires by setting controlled burns like this.
While Fridays fire was excellent news for this area, there are still many acres to go. In the last two years, Cal Fire came close to its 20k acre goal of prescribed burns. But in decades prior, the agency only managed about 10-20 percent of that acreage.
With new funding and new support from the capitol and public opinion, Cal Fire hopes to hit that goal for the first time.
Another controlled burn is scheduled in Sonoma County next week, weather permitting.