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Cal Fire chief to retire in December after leading agency through record wildfire seasons

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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.

Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter will retire before the end of the year, after leading the state through two of its worst wildfire seasons on record.

In an email to department staff Monday morning, Porter said he would retire on Dec. 10 “to focus on family, aging parents, and self." He did not respond to CapRadio’s request for comment.

Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Porter chief of Cal Fire in January 2019, not long after the Camp Fire devastated the town of Paradise and killed over 80 people. While his tenure was shorter than previous department leaders, Porter steered Cal Fire through record-setting wildfire seasons driven by decades of poor forest management and climate change.

He also placed a greater emphasis on the need for fire prevention — such as forest thinning and prescribed burning — in addition to fire suppression in order for California to address its wildfire crisis. However, the state has made inconsistent progress toward its ambitious fire prevention goals.

In an emailed statement, Newsom thanked Porter for his more than two decades of service in Cal Fire.

“Chief Porter has seen the state through unprecedented wildfire challenges over the past three years, and Californians are fortunate to have had his steadfast leadership guiding our preparedness, response and recovery efforts,” Newsom said.

Chief Deputy Director Craig Tolmie also recently announced his plans to retire from Cal Fire in December, which will leave the top two leadership positions open in the department.

In 2020, a record 4.3 million acres burned in California, straining limited firefighting resources and blanketing much of the state in hazardous smoke. This year, more than 3 million acres burned.

Both years, the immense firefighting challenges were complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which clogged response logistics and strained resources.

As mammoth fires raged across the state, Porter struck a somber tone with the public.

“Every acre in California can and will burn someday,” he said at an August press conference, as the massive Dixie Fire continued to spread. “Just make sure that you're ready when it does.”

Porter also oversaw and implemented Newsom’s push for more fire prevention projects to mitigate disastrous wildfires. But the department’s accomplishments did not always match its ambitions.

One of Newsom’s signature wildfire policies was his 35 “priority” wildfire prevention projects, announced in early 2019 and intended to protect 200 communities that were especially vulnerable to wildfires. Cal Fire anticipated that the projects would “treat” 90,000 acres through vegetation thinning, prescribed burning and fuel breaks. In early 2020, Newsom’s office announced that the projects had been completed and “collectively have treated 90,000 acres.”

A CapRadio investigation revealed that less than 12,000 acres had actually been treated. The findings spurred intense scrutiny of Cal Fire and the governor’s handling of fire prevention. The department has since claimed that 90,000 acres were protected by the work that was completed.

In an interview at the time, Porter addressed the discrepancy by saying Cal Fire had neither “done our job in educating the public, nor the governor’s office” about how to talk about the department’s wildfire prevention efforts.

Porter’s successor will lead the department at a time of continuing peril — and potential promise. Fire scientists warn that extreme fire conditions will persist, caused by overgrown forests and climate change, and that forest management remains well short of what is needed in California.

At the same time, the department’s coffers are flush with money to help prepare and protect communities. Newsom and the Legislature allocated more than $1 billion this year for wildfire prevention and forest health efforts, in an attempt to stem catastrophic wildfires before they spark.