SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — In his first Sacramento TV interview since getting the top job, Cal Fire Chief Joe Tyler about his biggest priorities and what keeps him up at night.
“This is really an all-hands approach. We have seen the fires get larger, more damaging and more devastating,” Tyler said.
Tyler’s Cal Fire career kicked off in 1991.
“The climate has changed; the environment has changed,” Tyler said.
In March of this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Tyler as the new director of California’s fire department, replacing retiring Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter.
“These fires are taking a toll on our firefighters on the ground. So my commitment coming in here, number one priority, is the health and wellness of our firefighters. And we have seen that in the commitment of the governor’s proposed budget, placing $400 million in his proposal for the health and wellness of our firefighters who are working 20, 30, 40, 50 days on the fire lines without any relief,” Tyler said.
Tyler said he wants to increase staffing to help out fire crews.
“Trying to add additional relief staffing to allow them to get a little time off the line to be able to take care of their personal needs and see their families and get away from that destructive environment, if only for a couple of days before they return to the front lines,” Tyler told FOX40.
Being prepared for this year’s fire season is also one of his top priorities.
“My next priority is really looking for ways to ensure that we’re operationally ready for the 2022 fire year and beyond. Not only 2022 but 2025, 2030, what the future of this department is looking like,” Tyler explained.
That future includes new aircraft with enhanced capabilities. Cal Fire now has seven shiny, new Blackhawk helicopters in service, and five more are in production.
These Firehawks, as they’re called, can carry 1,000 gallons of water in a single load. That is almost 700 gallons more than the Vietnam-era Super Hueys, which will be replaced.
Perhaps the biggest reason the new aircraft is a game-changer is the night vision capability. They can fight fire from the air 24/7.
“And our goal through the National Defense Authorization act is we’re going to add C-130 aircraft that will be able to drop up to 4,000 gallons of retardant at a time,” Tyler said.
Cal Fire secured federal approval for seven C-130s, adding to an existing fleet of nearly two dozen air tankers. Some of these planes are now being retrofitted for firefighting inside a Cal Fire hangar at McClellan Airport.
Tyler said they’ll be ready for service in 2024.
“But when they go into service, much like the Blackhawk helicopters, they will be a game-changer to the aviation community,” Tyler said.
He adds that Newsom’s proposed budget addresses the need for more resources on the ground, such as additional fire engines, additional bulldozers, and investing in additional hand crews.
“While we focus on suppression, we also have to focus on fuels treatment and fuels reduction,” Tyler explained. “We need to continue to focus our personnel on ensuring that we’re doing mechanical and hand-thinning, and using opportunities for beneficial fire and managed fire during the winter months when it is prime to try to reduce those fuel loads.”
When asked about what keeps him up at night, Tyler said the drought in California is what he thinks about.
“When I see, through the drought monitor, that o100% of the state of California is already in an extreme or severe drought; I look at our reservoirs that are critically low levels; I look at snowpack that is also at critically low levels for this time of the year; and I look at the light amount of precipitation here in the Sacramento area and north that we have received this spring; the winds behind that that are drying all the fuels out; and the grass crops that are going to carry fire are all going to lead to what will likely be a fire season much like what we have seen in 2020 and 2021 again. That really keeps me up at night,” Tyler said.
Property owners in California will also need to do their part.
“To commit to conducting their own fuels reduction and their own defensible space clearances. Ensure that they have their gutter clean and fuels removed from around their homes. When I say fuels, I mean vegetation removed from around their homes,” Tyler said.
It would be a group effort to make it through or better yet avoid another catastrophic fire season.
“It is a combination of everything that brings us forward to try to reduce what we’re seeing in California year after year,” Tyler said.
When asked what lessons were learned from some of the recent incidents like the Caldor Fire, Tyler said those fires highlight the need to adapt to changing environments. And that’s what Cal Fire is doing as the department adds personnel and modernizes equipment.