CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott speaking at Friday’s open house at the Hemet Ryan Air Base. Behind Pimlott is 3rd District Supervisor Jeff Stone (white shirt), Chief Dale Hutchison, head of CAL FIRE’s southern operations, and to his right, Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins. Photos by J.P. Crumrine

In a formal proclamation, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. declared May 6 through May 12 as “Wildfire Awareness Week.” As part of the week’s activities, CAL FIRE held an open house at the Hemet-Ryan Air Base Friday, May 11.

Recently confirmed CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott spoke about the interdependent roles of his agency and the public. “The public must do your part. We’ll bring the offense, the public brings the defense.” This is the message being carried throughout the state.

CAL FIRE has equipment and firefighters that are mobile and have the capability to shift those resources around the state to where they are needed. “We have two air tankers here at Hemet-Ryan and two at Ramona Air Base,” Pimlott stressed.

The public’s responsibility is to bring the defense, Pimlott said and Riverside county Fire Chief John Hawkins stressed. Defensible space, the 100-foot clearance around homes and structures is critical. Not only will that provide defense from an approaching wildfire, but it can also keep a house fire from escaping into the forest.

Officials discussed their preparation for the coming fire season. According to the state’s final snow survey on May 1, the statewide snowpack water content is only 40 percent of normal. Since precipitation has been 50 percent of normal rainfall in southern California, the fire season can begin early.

March and April snow and rain have delayed it, but have also created a longer growing season, which could increase fire intensity, according to Dale Hutchison, CAL FIRE south operation chief.

CAL FIRE Riverside County unit Chief John Hawkins stressed the importance of defensible space at Friday’s event at Hemet Ryan Air Base.

“Despite a rainy March, this year’s overall precipitation is below average,” said Pimlott. “As a result of the dry winter, the number of wildfires that CAL FIRE firefighters have already responded to is nearly three times that of last year.” In 2011, there were more than 1,250 wildland fires in Riverside County, according to Hawkins.

From January to April, CAL FIRE crews have responded to over 800 wildfires, nearly two and half times the number in 2011 when there were approximately 300 during that same time period. This year’s number of wildfires is above the five-year average as well, where the normal average is over 600 wildfires.

All of the CAL FIRE officials expressed gratitude for 3rd District Supervisor Jeff Stone’s efforts to stop the proposal to close Hemet-Ryan and move the air resources to March Air Base.

“The third district is the most vulnerable of all in Riverside County,” Stone said. “Air attack is very important to the security of Hill and community.”

The county is within weeks of signing agreements to begin the remodeling of the base, Stone added. Two significant changes will occur when the rehabilitation work is complete. Even larger air tankers will be able to use the base and night flying helicopters will be stationed there.

A CAL FIRE S2 air tanker ready to protect the unincorporated areas of Southern California.