New Cal Fire Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit chief plans ‘aggressive’ fire prevention efforts
Fire prevention is the prime focus for new Cal Fire Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit Chief George Morris III, he said at his first public introduction in Nevada County this week.
“We need a paradigm shift to move to a fire prevention focus, as opposed to fire suppression,” Morris told the Nevada County Board of Supervisors at Tuesday’s public meeting. “We need to understand that we have to be in a proactive footing when it comes to fire.”
Morris, 37, of Sacramento, said he will be ramping up staffing this month for the 2015 fire season — at least two months earlier than the normal May boost in seasonal firefighters and other workers.
“We need to be getting an aggressive fuels management plan in place this year,” he said. “We have a significant drought, so this year is going to be critical.”
Morris said the staffing boost includes the addition of five new defensible space inspectors by mid-March. The inspectors, who are not firefighters but are trained to scout for areas that need fuel clearing, will tour the district to advise on where to add more defensible space.
“The inspectors are going to be a critical tool to educate the public,” Morris said.
He said he and his staff plan to work with the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County and other groups to create as much defensible space as possible throughout the region.
Previously, defensible space inspections in the district were done by area fire agencies, Morris said. The new inspectors will free up the fire agencies to perform other critical duties.
“Last year, we had 6,500 inspections district-wide,” he said. “That’s pretty good when you consider they were all done by firefighters.”
Morris also plans to oversee a major upgrade at the Cal Fire Air Attack Base at Nevada County Airport in Grass Valley, the first such upgrade in 50 years.
The upgrade will double the fire retardant mixing and loading capacity, Morris said. This will be made possible by increasing storage in two massive tanks and by retooling the pumps that load the retardant into the planes.
According to Morris, the two new storage tanks will hold 25,000 gallons of retardant each, up from the two 12,500-gallon tanks at the air base previously.
“We’ll be able to mix and load up to 100,000 gallons a day,” Morris said.
The pump apparatus for the new system should be in place by mid-April, he said. The air tankers are currently in winter maintenance but will be returned to the air base later this spring, he said.
Morris will also oversee deployments at Washington Ridge Conservation Camp, a low-risk adult correctional facility above Nevada City where offenders can work off their sentences through performing fuels reduction activities.
Morris, who started at age 18 as a firefighter in his hometown of Paradise in Butte County, was most recently the administrator of the Cal Fire academy and training center in Ione. He replaces Unit Chief Brad Harris, who retired in November.
Alison Lehman, assistant county chief executive, said the supervisors would likely vote within the next month on a resolution to also name Morris as Nevada County Fire Marshal. Harris was voted in to serve in that role in 2007, Lehman said.
“It has to be done by resolution,” Lehman said.
Morris’s background also includes eight years as a U.S. Army reserve officer, achieving the rank of staff sergeant, from 1997 to 2005. He served in Yugoslavia part of the time and in Iraq from 2003-04, where he led 300 combat missions.
In addition to his time as a firefighter and fire engineer in Butte County, he also had stints running inmate fuels clearing crews and as a prevention and hazard abatement officer in other areas of Cal Fire.
Some of his other jobs were in Mendocino County, Tehama County and Sonoma-Lake-Napa counties, where he was a battalion chief in the fire prevention unit.
“Myself and the six other former Cal Fire unit chiefs in Nevada County will be watching you,” quipped Nevada County Fourth District Supervisor Hank Weston, who also served as Grass Valley Fire Chief at one point. “Your honeymoon will last about six months, so keep smiling.”
Supervisor Nate Beason had similar greetings.
“Welcome to Nevada County,” he told Morris. “Home of a gazillion retired fire chiefs.”
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.
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