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Director of Cal Fire discusses goals, politics

CHIEF Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, talks with attendees of Thursday's meeting. Democrat photo by Cole Mayer

Chief Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire talks with attendees of Thursday's meeting. Democrat photo by Cole Mayer

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From page A1 | April 02, 2012 | Leave Comment

The Sacramento-Tahoe Chapter of the Society of American Foresters hosted Chief Ken Pimlott, state director of Cal Fire, at the group’s diner meeting March 29.

The meeting, which was attended by active and retired members of Cal Fire, a member of the California Board of Equalization, retired members of the Forest Service and more, focused on Pimlott, his history with Cal Fire, and the current political climate the state-run organization is facing.

Pimlott began by describing how he was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown as director in July of 2011, following a stint as acting director since November of 2010. He began his career in fire protection in 1987, and has a 23-year history with Cal Fire. He is also the State Forester.

He described how he essentially rebuilt the executive team of Cal Fire after his appointment, as he was coming in at a time when many members of the organization were retiring. He also had to deal with budget cuts, saying he “didn’t know if we could give up two-thirds of the fire protection program,” saying that the cut would be $250 million-300 million. “We had to come back from the brink.”

But, he said, he worked through his first year, with a $75 million cut. He was forced to shut down the nursery that Cal Fire ran, “steer(ing) away from the” fire protection program.

Even so, he was forced to drop the number of firefighters on an engine from four to three, saving $30 million from the General Fund, eliminate two fire engines from the Tahoe branch, and moved the $7 million DC-10 tanker airplane from the now-closed Fresno air base to Porterville. He noted that after the 2003 Southern California fires, there were 20 engines in the region. Now there are eight. The warehouse run by the organization was also closed in a cost-saving measure. Five bulldozers owned by the organization also had to be eliminated, and Pimlott is trying to find new jobs in the organization for the operators.

“Close early, open late,” Pimlott said of the fire stations, as they are “obligated to save money.” He said they are the “first real cuts…in a long time,” noting Cal Fire has “no complaints, everybody is taking system-wide cuts.” He said they are trying to minimize their impact on the state’s system.

Ironically, although there have been significant cuts to Cal Fire, Pimlott said that until the rain started, there have been an above average number of fires in January and February. While the recent rainfall has hampered fires being ignited, he said the good times are bound to end, and Cal Fire is preparing for fire season, expecting the Santa Ana winds to kick up fires.

Looking past fire season, if the governor’s tax initiative doesn’t pass in November, Pimlott said, Cal Fire will take a $60 million cut. He said they are seeing more discussion on the issue as it grows closer, preferring to “wait and see where it goes.”

When questioned on the upcoming fee to 800,000 landowners, Pimlott noted that the general populace was not happy with having to pay.

“They are frustrated about the fee,” he said. “We get that. We’re not taking (the attacks on the fee) personally.”

The $150 fee, meant to help with the large state deficit, will be billed to landowners for each habitable building they own on the parcel, Pimlott said. Those who are already covered by a local fire protection agency will receive a $35 rebate. Pimlott said that about $85 million in revenue will be generated from the bill.

He later noted that a piece of legislation had been submitted to repeal the fee. “We get where the public’s at with the issue,” he said. “The Legislature and public have a process, if that’s where people don’t want to go.”

Pimlott told the foresters that the goal of Cal Fire is to keep 95 percent of fires in California to 10 acres of less. To that end, he believes the traditional definition of fire protection has evolved to be more of keeping fires from getting larger.

While one attendee pointed out that a single fire had cost upwards of $14 million to protect a “handful of shacks” that he described as “decrepit,” Pimlott noted that properties with structures had been more important in protecting in the past, but would like to “expand the efforts in the timberland,” even though he admitted it would probably cost more.

Pimlott also described the jurisdiction of Cal Fire, in that there are three areas in California, one covered by Cal Fire, one covered by local fire departments and a final area covered by the National Park Service. Each area covered 30 million-31 million acres. Unlike other states, he said, the majority of fires in California cross into two or all three areas. He said talks of which agency covers what “go on every day,” to allow the “exchange of resources” that local fire departments may not have, such as air tankers or extra crews.

Sometimes the local departments are not billed, while other times they pay a per-acre contract cost, Pimlott said. When the local departments are not billed, he said it’s usually in the state’s best interest to stop the fire before it goes into Cal Fire territory, which would then put the cost onto the state. He said keeping it to local jurisdiction is “a huge advantage to the state.” The area from Placerville to Folsom, he said, contains both incorporated and unincorporated areas, so local departments sometimes get bills.

There are exceptions, such as a 1991 fire, where the governor decided to eat up the costs as the affected cities of Oakland and Berkeley were unable to.

On the flip side, local departments almost always help Cal Fire, Pimlott said, and as many or more local departments will show up to help with a Cal Fire jurisdiction fire. He reiterated that there is a “constant discussion of who is responsible.”

Pimlott fielded other questions from the approximately 30 people in attendance concerning other bureaucratic parts of Cal Fire and how they are working with the legislation, as well as how inmates are being used to fight fires and provide extra manpower.

Overall, the political climate where Cal Fire is concerned is ”all about relationships, reaching out where we haven’t done so well in the past,” he said said, referring to helping with legislation behind the scenes and trying to work with other agencies to reduce costs and create better synergy. “We’re reaching out to do a better job.”

The next meeting of the Sacramento-Tahoe Branch of American Foresters will be on April 19 at Round Table Pizza in Rocklin. Pete Cafferata, Cal Fire forest hydrologist, will be the guest speaker. The topic at hand will be the history of the Caspar Creek Watershed Study and its implications on forest management. For more information or to reserve a place at the meeting, contact Brian Barrette at 916-332-5617.

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