Fall 2009

[News]

Top Rung

Alum named California's Chief Firefighter

Del Walters (‘77)

Trying to manage firefighting for a state as large and complex as California is an enormous task. Throw in a practically year-round fire season and big budget cuts and it gets even tougher. Good thing Del Walters is up to the job.

The 1977 HSU alum was recently named director of Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for managing wildfire in California. Walters, who has been with the agency for more than 30 years, began as a firefighter in 1971. He has been a fire apparatus engineer, a fire captain, a forester, a battalion chief and an executive officer.

Walters faces a bevy of challenges in his new position. Fire seasons in California are becoming longer and more intense due to factors including accumulation of forest fuels and climate change. State budget cuts compound the situation.

“The period of time when California burns keeps getting longer,” Walters says. “We’re only budgeted to be at increased staffing for a certain period of time. And now we’re fighting fires sooner and ending later than that budgeted period. It’s something we’ll have to address very soon.”

One key approach to addressing the extended fire season is prevention.

“The best way to not have these large fires and spend lots of money is to spend money up front to keep them small,” he says. “That’s job number one for me.”

While a student in HSU’s Department of Forestry, he studied silviculture—the establishment and propagation of healthy forests—but then returned to battling blazes.

“When I graduated I fully expected to go into a more science-based career. But firefighting gets in your blood. Plus, I had a permanent job within two weeks of graduating from Humboldt, so that made a big difference.”

When he’s not traveling the state on business, Walters works from his 15th floor office overlooking the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.

“When a boy grows up and wants a job where he can be outside, you never envision yourself in a high-rise,” Walters says. “Up until this point I said the best job I ever had was as battalion chief in Sonoma County, but this new one is shaping up to be the all-time best.”