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Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott Discusses Wildfires Ravaging California


In California, authorities face the grim task of searching for the missing and dead as wildfires continue ravaging communities at both ends of the state. One of the fires, the Camp Fire, has killed at least 29 people and has destroyed the town of Paradise, which is 90 miles north of Sacramento. And there are fears the death toll there could rise as sheriff deputies comb through the neighborhoods reduced to scorched earth and burned-out homes and cars.

Ken Pimlott is the head of California's firefighting agency, Cal Fire. Yesterday he said the high winds aren't cutting the thousands of firefighters any slack.


KEN PIMLOTT: Fire conditions will continue to exist until we get some sort of appreciable rainfall or precipitation to change that.

CHANG: Chief Pimlott joins us now from Sacramento. Welcome.

PIMLOTT: Thank you.

CHANG: So I remember speaking with you on the show just this past summer when your teams were maxed out. They were working around the clock trying to contain some massive blazes. And here we are again.

PIMLOTT: Absolutely. And I remember at that time we were talking about, you know, breaking records. We had...

CHANG: That's right.

PIMLOTT: ...The largest fire in the state's history. And now we're talking about the most destructive and the deadliest.

CHANG: So give us a quick update. What are you hearing from your teams from where you are right now?

PIMLOTT: So, you know, the Camp Fire obviously continues to be of concern. Although the winds have died down a bit in Northern California, we still have very, very dry weather and don't see that changing at all within the next week. And so the fire, although it's not actively burning structures in the communities, it's really moving up onto some more rural areas. But it continues to be a large fire. And it's really just working through the overhaul of what used to be Paradise. And it's really now just the cleanup. As you mentioned, it's the continued search for over 200 people that are missing. And we certainly hope that the fatality count doesn't increase, but we know there's a strong potential for that.

CHANG: Can you explain how the continuing winds are complicating efforts right now?

PIMLOTT: Winds just drive fire.

CHANG: Right.

PIMLOTT: And as you can see in the fire in Southern California, it is - the Woolsey is just continuing to actively burn. We've got 60- to 70-mile-an-hour offshore Santa Ana winds blowing for the next several days.


PIMLOTT: And those are just - they're deadly.

CHANG: And if weather conditions don't improve, could we see even more fires start?

PIMLOTT: Absolutely. We are in very critical conditions, particularly in Southern California this week and particularly San Diego, Riverside San Bernardino counties. We could easily see more fires start in the next few days.

CHANG: Now, these fires - they've been more aggressive in recent years. They're hotter. They're bigger. They're faster. How has your firefighting strategy changed in the past few years with these more explosive kinds of fires?

PIMLOTT: You know, we continue a very aggressive initial attack policy. There's 40 million people in California. You know, we can't afford to let these fires escape. You know, our goal is 95 percent of them to be contained at 10 acres or less. And we meet that goal. But when the fires escape that initial attack under these kind of conditions, they are becoming explosive. And so it's - for us, it's looking at where we can contain them in areas where maybe we couldn't before, we didn't before. We looked at ridgelines.

And unfortunately, the focus really has to be on protecting lives and property. That's always our first priority. And when you're engaged in doing that like we did in Paradise, literally spending the first day saving lives, you can't work on perimeter control. You can't work on, you know, containing the fire. And so these fires just - again, they're going to get bigger. On average, we're seeing more and more 100,000-acre fires each year. And those used to be the exception to the rule.

CHANG: How are your firefighters holding up? They're not getting any breaks these days, right?

PIMLOTT: They aren't. They're - the firefighters are tired. We had a short break between the summer fires and before this fall siege started. But this is going to be occurring until it rains. And many of our firefighters and law enforcement and other public safety officials have lost their own homes and continue to work on the fire lines helping other people. So it's a - it's taxing on everyone.

CHANG: Yeah. Ken Pimlott is the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Thank you very much.

PIMLOTT: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.