Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott announced he plans to retire this week after three decades of service. He joins Insight for an exit interview to reflect on one of the most devastating fire seasons in California.
On why we’re seeing fires like we’ve never seen before
The root is multi-pronged. And the reality is, we're coming off five years of drought. Vegetation is critically, critically parched, even with rainfall that we've had several winters — it hasn't changed the condition. Temperatures are changing. The weather patterns are changing. The climate is changing to where we're seeing different vegetation move into areas that historically weren't there. All of that's part of this changing landscape, and that's going to be real as we go forward. And so it's all the factors that we need to engage in to respond to this.
On the role of forest management in preventing megafires, in light of President Trump’s comments
Forest management is key. But it's really I call it sort of a three-legged stool. It's forest management, fire prevention, fuels treatment. Prescribed fire — absolutely need to increase the pace and scale. We need to be smart where we target that, where we leverage our funding and work on that. But it's about other factors too. It's fire prevention. It's education. It's land-use planning. It's ensuring that we're looking at what we're learning from these devastating fires in the built environment. And how do we work on those aspects as well.
Retiring Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott (left) and new Chief Mike Mohler (right)Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
On what should be learned from fires like the Camp Fire in Butte County
The first six to 12 hours of the Camp Fire, firefighters were literally engaged in rescue. Firefighters, law enforcement, ordinary, regular civilians. We weren't engaging in the firefight. We were just literally pulling people out of harm's way. In many cases people couldn't evacuate because of the timing. And so they were sheltered in place in areas. Obviously many people died in that fire.
So we have to look at all of the factors that occurred in the Camp Fire and others and determine, can we learn things from this? We have very strict building codes in the urban interface in California. We've got to look to see, are there needs for improvement? We need to work together collectively between local government and the state and identify other areas that, again, we're going to build in these in these areas. But can we do it smartly? Are there areas that we know are just not defendable because they're fire prone? They're in canyons that are intensifying winds that just make it impossible to protect. So how can we look at development patterns and how can we look at ways to better protect these communities.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.