Who should lead the state department responsible for wildland fires? Someone who knows how to manage forests, or someone who knows how to put out the flames?
The union that represents California state firefighters is leaning on Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to appoint a fire chief to lead the state’s fire department.
Cal Fire Local 2881’s request reflects a split between the two main responsibilities for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
As its formal name conveys, the department both sets policies to manage forests and serves as the state’s primary defense when wildfires break out.
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The union contends that California’s recent wildfires have grown so dangerous that Newsom should appoint someone with a deep professional background in firefighting rather than forest management.
“Forests need to be managed, but it’s not going to stop the fires,” said Tim Edwards, the union’s incoming president.
Six of the state’s 10 most destructive wildfires in history took place in the past two years. The Camp Fire in November became the state’s deadliest when it leveled the town of Paradise in Butte County and killed 86 people.
President Donald Trump has drawn attention to California’s overgrown forests as a contributing cause to the fires, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in September that freed up an additional $1 billion for forest management.
The Cal Fire union expressed its preference for a fire chief to Newsom through California Professional Firefighters, a larger statewide association that also represents municipal firefighters. The association has about 30,000 members and it’s an influential voice as a public safety union. It endorsed Newsom.
Newsom has not indicated whom he intends to appoint. In campaign interviews, Newsom discussed preparing the state for wildfires by improving vegetation management, urban planning and planning for the potential environmental impacts of climate change.
His recent comments on wildfires have centered on supporting victims. He plans to host a benefit concert at the Golden 1 Center for wildfire victims Jan. 6.
“This is not a time for partisanship. This is a time for coordinating relief and response and lifting those in need up,” he wrote on Twitter in early November after Trump seemed to blame California officials for the state’s deadly wildfires.
Ken Pimlott led Cal Fire as director from 2010 until his retirement this month. He worked as a firefighter early in his career and moved up the department’s ranks as a forester. In recent interviews, he has stressed that the state must improve its urban planning and forest management practices to reduce the risk of future fires.
“This fire, if it happens again, we’re not going to stop it,” Pimlott said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee about Paradise earlier this month. “So how do we build communities that are more resistant to that?”
Thom Porter is leading the department as acting director. He joined the department in 1999 as a forester. He was promoted to one of the department’s top positions in 2015 when he was named Southern Region Chief, which placed him in charge of Southern California firefighting operations.
Cal Fire Local 2881 had a testy relationship with Pimlott since Moe Flemming, an instructor at the department’s firefighting academy in Amador County, murdered his girlfriend, Sarah June Douglas, and brought intense scrutiny on the department.
Pimlott cracked down on other alleged misbehavior at the academy, such as cheating on exams and drinking after hours, and created a professional standards program that has sought to create uniform disciplinary procedures across the department.
The union has fought some of those efforts, contending that department executives are going too far in punishing firefighters for infractions without adequately educating them about new standards.
The union also has pressed Brown to boost funding for fire suppression by hiring more firefighters.
Brown has taken steps to keep part-time seasonal firefighters on duty longer in the year, but the department has about as many firefighters as it did three years ago. The state budget Brown signed in June called for 5,828 Cal Fire employee in fire protection assignments, down from 5,870 two years ago.
“Staffing has to become a priority for this department,” Edwards said.
Brown’s last budget as governor included money to buy new firefighting Blackhawk helicopters and to hire more mechanics to support year-round operations. The department’s total budget is $2.3 billion, up from $1.9 billion in the 2016-17 budget year.
Edwards said the state’s long-term plan to better manage its forestland remains a top priority.
“But it’s going to take 50 to 100 years to bring the forests back to where they need to be. In the meantime, these fires are going to happen and we need people on the front lines controlling them before we have incidents like Paradise,” he said.