California firefighters must learn new lessons

Firefighter Chris Oliver walks between grape vines as a helicopter drops water over a wildfire on Oct. 14 in Santa Rosa.
Firefighter Chris Oliver walks between grape vines as a helicopter drops water over a wildfire on Oct. 14 in Santa Rosa. AP

From Sonoma to Los Angeles, flames have scorched California’s landscape, taking homes, treasured possessions and lives with them. Both stunning and horrific, the wildfires also showed millions of people the heroism of firefighters and emergency personnel.

While wildfire is part of living in the West, it would be irresponsible and foolish not to prepare for our new climate reality.


I spent years sending men and women into danger to fight these fires, and we need collaboration and ingenuity to review current firefighting policies and provide our emergency personnel with the resources and well-developed plans to survive.

The wine country fires were fueled in part by hot, dry Diablo winds as strong as 75 mph from the northwest, unlike the coastal flow that usually brings cool air into the state. The Diablo winds are only one example of shifting weather trends resulting in destruction.

While we may disagree on the ultimate cause of the changing climate, our mindset and reaction to disaster must adapt as well. We need an open-minded approach that examines firefighting techniques and how to adapt our infrastructure to account for high winds and for rainfall that often leads to landslides following a fire, which happened in Santa Barbara County. We must also work with communities, utilities, public safety groups and governments to regulate development and population growth in a safe and organized manner.

After the 2003 San Diego fires, a blue-ribbon commission made recommendations that would have addressed many of the issues we are still facing today. We owe it to our emergency personnel and California residents to refresh and fully implement these recommendations:

▪ We must do a better job of warning residents so they can prepare for a timely evacuation. In the wine country fires, the high winds were predicted, but occurred when people were sleeping.

▪ We must strengthen codes to prevent development encroaching into wildlands where lives and property cannot be reasonably protected.

▪ We must improve standards for emergency vehicle access and evacuation routes.

▪ We must make our electrical and water systems more resilient.

While the damage and loss of life from the recent wildfires was heartbreaking, it would be an even greater tragedy if we fail to act to protect residents and the men and women who keep them safe.

Kurt Henke, former chief of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, is a consultant to major fire operations who now lives in Napa. He can be contacted at