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New Cal Fire Director Thom Porter On How To Prepare For Wildfires

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, at a news conference Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, in Sacramento.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Last year was the worst on record for wildfires in California, with the deadliest fire in the state’s recorded history striking the community of Paradise six months ago. On Monday, Cal Fire announced the start of Wildfire Awareness Week, which includes public information initiatives aimed at helping Californians prepare for and prevent wildfires in their communities.

Cal Fire’s new Director Chief Thom Porter joins Insight to discuss what his agency is doing to reduce the risk of wildfire throughout the state, even as the first fires of the year begin to burn. He’ll also talk about what Cal Fire predicts for the coming fire season, what some prominent risk factors are and what people can do to protect themselves.

Cal Fire officials announced on Monday that they had a list of 35 projects across the state that are crucial to preventing the kind of destructive wildfires that raged in 2018. The projects, which include clearing brush and grass for firebreaks, will help protect 200 communities when they’re finished. Meanwhile crews are racing to complete the job before vegetation completely dries out as weather gets warmer and summer approaches.

Read highlights from the interview with Porter below.

Interview Highlights

On what people should know about fire season

Number one is to actually realize that no matter where you are in California wildfires can and will affect your life. Whether it's evacuation, whether it's people coming to your community that have been evacuated, all of these things will have that effect to you.

But Ready, Set Go: utilizing our app, which you can get at any app store for idevices or Android. Go there, look up Cal Fire app, and you'll find that there's evacuation planning tools, there's emergency kit planning tools, there's structure hardening checklists that you can do. All interactive. And defensible space as well. These tools also allow you to click on and watch videos of what we mean by these different things. It's a very handy tool. Just anybody can get it. It's a free app.

On what the 2019 fire season is looking like

2019 is shaping up to be a very difficult fire season. Just seeing that the change in fires now that the grass is starting to cure in areas of the state, growing quickly to over a thousand acres. Grass makes fires very easy to start and and so they carry quickly quickly into the chaparral covered landscape and then into the forest.

And so you've heard us for years saying oh, lots of rain, lots of grass, terrible fire season. Drought, no grass, but still terrible fire season. What we need to realize is that every fire year in California is going to be a difficult one for us, and climate change has made that even more extreme. So we are preparing. We do have new tools that we're utilizing, remote sensing and these crews and additional arrangements with the National Guard and our partners.

But every Californian needs to do their part. Ninety-five percent of fires are started by human activity. Most of those are by accident. So be careful.

On what we can do to stop these fires

It's a really hard question to field, because there is no one answer. The answer to that question is multifaceted. It has to do with the structural environment, where our homes and subdivisions and communities are. It has to do with the interface lands that are between those and the wildlands, I'll call those further out, and the forests and really developing a resilient system of all of these things that can withstand wildfire.

We've really emphasized fire prevention in the recent years, and we're still having big fires. I think what everybody needs to understand is that California is a fire-prone geography, end to end, top to bottom. It really is. Every single acre in California that can burn, will burn someday. It just depends on the conditions.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.

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