James Lee Witt, director of FEMA for eight years, is executive director of Rebuild North Bay, a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) social-welfare group created to advocate and lobby as the region recovers from wildfires that swept through Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in October.
Donations to a 501(c)(4) can be unlimited and undisclosed. Total losses in the fires are estimated at $7.4 billion.
North Bay Business Journal interviewed Witt, who is based in Little Rock, on Nov. 6. He will speak at a conference in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Nov. 16.
Did you have a chance to tour some of the burned areas?
Yes. We toured pretty much all of it in Sonoma and Napa counties.
You went up Fountaingrove Parkway in Santa Rosa?
In your time at FEMA or as the OES director for Arkansas, did you ever see a fire this bad?
Not this bad, no. I was at the Malibu fire (Old Topanga Fire, 1993, $500 million damage), the Laguna Beach fire (1993, 16,000 acres, 400 homes lost, $528 million damage). I have never seen one this large and intense.
The intensity is what astounded me on Fountaingrove. Did you see burn areas where aluminum melted (1,200 degrees Fahrenheit)?
When the rim of a car melts, that’s pretty intense. It’s very fortunate that more people didn’t lose their lives.
Thousands of people got out of their homes in time to survive. We could have lost hundreds of lives if deputies had not gone house to house alerting people?
You were a buddy of Bill Clinton?
I was coaching a Little League team and he was running for Congress. He came down to a ball game and introduced himself. He was 27 years old (now 71. Witt is 73.)
When he was governor of Arkansas, he appointed you as head of the Office of Emergency Management?
Yes. I was a county judge for 10 years. His staff (member) called me and said the governor wants you down here this afternoon. I said I was really busy. She said, no, I didn’t understand. He wanted me down there. (He was appointed to run emergency services for the state). I was there four and a half years and we had three disasters.
Those were floods?
Floods and tornadoes. One was in Hot Springs (1990, 13 inches of rain in 24 hours,) He called me and said the water was up to his mama’s porch — what should she do. I said, get out. It was up about four feet in downtown Hot Springs.
Clinton (as president) appointed you FEMA director in 1993, and you served eight years. You handled about 350 disasters. How many of those were fires?
I don’t remember. Most of the fires we dealt with were in California and Idaho.
You started a couple of years after the Oakland hills fire in 1991?
Yes. I was in Oakland when Governor (Jerry) Brown was mayor. I have a good relationship with him. I met with folks in that fire and looked at how they built back, with more resiliency, more fire-resistant roofing, siding and landscaping. They put a box on the corner of every block with a radio and flashlight. Whoever got to the box first was the block captain in case something happened. They did a good job rebuilding.