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Outgoing California fire chief says every acre 'can and will burn'

by Julie Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle |

When California’s top fire chief Thom Porter finished his last official day leading Cal Fire last week, the state was still mired in an intractable wildfire crisis that not even a wet winter can erase.

Massive areas of blackened forest still conceal smoldering remnants of the more than three million acres that burned this year. Thousands of people who lost their homes have just begun to rebuild. Communities are still struggling to bounce back after fires from previous years. Researchers are still studying the lasting impacts of wildfire smoke.

Porter admitted Friday the immediate future may look bleak. Climate experts project California will endure another drought year. The projections show little relief for the state’s firefighting ranks enduring long deployments while battling multiple major wildfires at once.

“Every year has the potential to be the worst fire season ever — it absolutely does — whether we’re in a drought or not in a drought, and that’s California,” Porter said. “That’s the California I’ve grown up in — I’m fifth generation — and understanding that is just part of the deal.”

Eight of the 10 largest wildfires in state history have burned since 2017. Wildfires in recent years have broken records for destructiveness, deadliness and sheer size. Last year alone more than 4 million acres burned, and Cal Fire spent about $1.76 billion to fight last year’s fires. The state each year must demand long and grueling deployments of its firefighting ranks.

California leaders are largely in agreement about central components of a safer future: More managed fires to clear overgrowth and stimulate natural regeneration, persistent programs to battle invasive plant species and proactive reforestation programs to foster healthy ecosystems.

Cal Fire’s $2.9 billion budget reflects this. There’s much more spent on responding to fires than preventing them, but lawmakers are starting to see the need to invest in prevention. The state set aside just $80 million for fire prevention in its fiscal year 2017-18 budget but lawmakers in September approved nearly $1 billion this fiscal year for wildfire prevention programs and committed at least $200 million each year through 2027.

But the challenge continues to be how to take action on those goals.

Porter’s successor must take up this mission amid increasing scrutiny over the agency’s ability to tackle the state’s overgrown, drought-parched landscape.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office hasn’t yet named a replacement. Chief Deputy Director Craig Tolmie is leading the department on an interim basis.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Yuba City Republican whose district spans the northern Central Valley from the Mendocino National Forest to the town of Paradise, said the state must “exponentially increase” the amount of fire prevention work done. That must be followed by readily available proof its investments are working, he said.

Cal Fire’s work came under scrutiny earlier this year after Newsom drastically overstated how many acres had been treated with wildfire prevention projects, a discrepancy first uncovered by Sacramento NPR station CapRadio. Porter took responsibility for that error, claiming his agency didn’t sufficiently explain the data to the governor’s office.

“We have to be sure there’s accountability that hundreds of thousands of acres are getting treated every year,” Gallagher said.

Porter’s successor will take over at a time when its workforce is being asked to meet what seems to be an increasing scope of wildfire emergency each year.

Tim Edwards, president of the union representing Cal Fire’s 6,400 seasonal and permanent firefighters, said the agency must limit the toll these fire seasons are taking on employees.

He credited Porter with leading the agency through both a pandemic and wildfire crisis, but said he hoped Cal Fire’s next director will have more firefighting experience and be a better advocate for firefighters. Porter worked as a professional forester before joining Cal Fire in 1999.

The state needs more firefighters, said Edwards, who believes the historic crisis calls for a 50 percent increase in the agency’s firefighting ranks. Edwards said firefighters are routinely on the fire line for 40 days at a time and given a brief break before being sent out again.

Edwards said he supports proposed legislation that would add 356 permanent firefighters and 768 seasonal firefighters to the state’s ranks. North Coast State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he would introduce the measure calling for the $214 million investment in Cal Fire personnel.

“This is it,” Edwards said. “The norm is we’re having major devastating fires every year and it’s not going to go away. We need to allow the men and women of Cal Fire to be able to have relief and go home and recuperate.”

Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat, had previously called for Cal Fire to be split into two agencies, one focused on fire prevention and the other on firefighting. But Dodd said he’s now convinced the agency can take on both roles, and he credited Porter with promoting that focus.

“Rome wasn’t built overnight,” Dodd said. “We went from zero to where we are today and I just believe that we will build on that every single year.”

Porter agreed Cal Fire needs “hundreds and hundreds” more firefighters.

And he acknowledged criticisms that the agency had failed to meet goals for acres treated through vegetation management programs. But he said the agency today is on track to meet its annual goal of treating 60,000 acres ahead of target year 2025. He suggested the metric shouldn’t be numbers of acres but the strategic value of areas treated.

Porter, 53, who said he is retiring to move back to San Diego and spend time with his family, has repeated a mantra over the last several months that he believes every acre with vegetation in California “can and will burn.”

He said the effectiveness of the state’s efforts to limit risk for communities will take decades of persistent work. Foresters plant trees knowing the benefits of that labor won’t be evident for 50 or 100 years, he said.

“The ultimate test is the test of time,” Porter said.