SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Despite near-record rainfall in California this past winter, the state has already seen more – and larger – fires so far in 2017, and the director of the state’s firefighting agency blames climate change and years of mismanaging forests.
Fueled by dense, fast-growing brush, 4,266 wildfires have burned over 300,000 acres statewide as of Aug. 1. So far this year, the Golden State has experienced its third and seventh largest fires in history.
With the trailer for the new Netflix series “Fire Chasers” playing, Cal Fire chief director Ken Pimlott told members of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Resources and Transportation that California’s efforts toward fire preparedness are far from finished.
“At one point in time in my life, we used to ask the question ‘I wonder if this is going to be a bad fire season?’” Committee Chair Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, said. “We don’t ask that question anymore. We ask, ‘How bad is it going to be?’”
Pimlott said climate change and decades of poorly managed forests are causing longer fire seasons that stress resources and require new tools and methods to counteract.
“Just because we had significant rain this past winter, it didn’t change the fire conditions; it just changed some of the dynamics and how it’s happening,” Pimlott said. “We are well ahead this year in terms of both the number of fires and the acreage burned over last year.”
To combat the expanding risk of devastating wildfires burning out of control, Pimlott said Cal Fire wants to add several new aircraft, including a specially modified Boeing 747 and brand new Sikorsky S-70i helicopters, to its firefighting fleet. The helicopters would replace the aging fleet of modified, repurposed Vietnam-era Huey UH-1 aircraft. The new Sikorskys, based on the famous Blackhawk helicopter, would be able to fly at night – currently a major limitation in fighting fires that can burn through brush at hundreds of miles per hour.
Pimlott said one of the unintentional but leading cause of fires is drivers pulling into brush on the side of the road with hot exhaust systems.
“Every spark that gets into the grass ignites a fire,” Pimlott said. “It could be just somebody taking their boat to the lake and not ensuring that the chain does not drag on the ground. The sparks will start a fire.”
While human error continues to be the leading cause of wildfires, the number of dead trees and densely overgrown brush are responsible for some of the most damaging and difficult to control fires.
In October 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency declaration to address the number of dead and dying trees as a result of extended drought conditions. An estimated 102 million trees died between 2010 and 2016 during the Golden State’s devastating drought, with about 62 million perishing in 2016 alone.
These trees are frequently to blame for wildfires, including the 2015 Butte Fire that burned 70,000 acres and destroyed 900 structures after a dead pine tree fell on power lines.
Cal Fire has partnered with the California Conservation Corps to organize crews to clear dead trees and conduct controlled burns in densely forested areas.
Pimlott informed the subcommittee that in the time since the declaration, Pacific Gas & Electric has cleared trees and brush from 100,000 miles of power lines across the state. California has spent $418 million to remove dead and dying trees statewide, which has been instrumental to reducing the amount of property damage caused by fires.
“Collectively, we have removed over 800,000 trees since the declaration,” Pimlott said. “We have focused primarily on the property damage side of things.” He credits the ability of multiple agencies, including Cal Fire, Caltrans, PG&E and others who have worked together to reduce the risk of unintentional fires.
Pimlott said the state needs to commit more money to fire prevention and forest maintenance projects.
“Fifteen million dollars really isn’t enough to deal with our forest health challenges,” Pimlott said. “We really need to look at more significant investments.”
Pimlott said a proposed $150 million appropriation would make a nice start toward a long-term solution to wildfires in California.