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Cal Fire director retiring with a message: California needs to rebuild smarter

KRCR Reporter Courtney Kreider with Cal Fire Director "Chief" Ken Pimlott at the Incident Command Center during the Camp Fire. (Photo: KRCR)

The state's top firefighter, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, retired Friday and is sharing some words of wisdom for people who want to build or rebuild in California.

He says communities and the state need to work together now more than ever in an effort to prevent another Camp Fire. Pimlott offered some strong parting words after recent California wildfires.

"You are responsible for these folks, we want these folks to be safe. These jobs are dangerous and the stories that will continue to come out about the heroism, the survival and the extent to which all of these individuals took to help save their community, the individual residents, regular people stepped up beyond what was imaginable to save each other to get people out," Pimlott said while looking back on the experiences of evacuees and firefighters during the Camp Fire.

After 30 years with Cal Fire, the last eight leading the state's largest fire agency through the most horrific fires in the state's history, the weight of saving lives sits on his shoulders.

The now, former Director, known as "Chief" in the fire community leaves behind a legacy but carries with him the memories of communities like Paradise.

More than 18,000 buildings and homes were incinerated by the blaze and the death toll sits at 86 people.

Pimlott said after deadly and destructive wildfires, which seemingly are only getting worse, it is time to look at where Californians are living.

"At the end of the day I recognize people are going to move to the wildland urban interface, that's part of being able to own land in California and have that. But the real advice going forward is, the Camp Fire has driven home that not only should we be focusing on fuels treatment and working on forest management to help reduce the intensity of fires, we need to work on the built environment," Pimlott said.

Building codes, updating older homes with things such as fire resistant roofing, double pane windows and possibly wider driveway space are things most homes in Paradise did not have and many other homes in the Northstate do not either.

"We have hundreds of communities like Paradise that could easily burn," Pimlott said. He added there may be fire prone areas in Paradise and surrounding communities such as Magalia and Concow where people should not rebuild but that's a conversation for the local leaders and community to have.

"I think we need to look at that and I think now they have an opportunity to look at that because it's almost starting over from scratch," Pimlott said. "The difficult part of that is people own the property. You can't just come in and tell somebody well now you're not going to get to rebuild on a piece of property they've owned for decades."

Pimlott suggests with the new normal of extreme fire behavior, homeowners and local contractors should take extreme precaution, similar to what they do in other parts of the country when it comes to extreme weather.

"Those are all things ingrained in people where there’s a risk for tornadoes so a very similar thought process to a community so you know where to evacuate to if you cannot evacuate safely outside," Pimlott said having steady structures that are able to provide refuge would also provide a meeting place where firefighters know to respond.

Pimlott said he's had discussions with Paradise Mayor, Jody Jones. He, along with local leaders like Jones, knows these changes will take a lot of work but the Chief believes after this year's unimaginable loss, people are ready.

"This isn't the state coming into dictate. The state needs to be part of, being at the table doing this together. The locals know their community. They know and this really has to be driven at that level but it's going to require a village. I think they've been ready for it for a while. I think this fire has just put it right up front for everyone and we have to engage in the discussion now," Pimlott said.

Pimlott, during his time with the state, said what he is most proud of is the partnerships Cal Fire has developed with sister state agencies, federal agencies, local government, environmental groups and the community, who are all trying to find ways to tackle the challenges people are facing in California when it comes to fire.

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