Rita Comes peered out her window alongside her 9-year-old daughter in the early morning hours one day last summer. They watched "surreal lightning" in what felt like a movie. Comes began to pack her car, prepare emergency go boxes and take photos of important documents for what she thought would be the inevitable — wildfire evacuation from Portola Valley. She realized that her options to evacuate were limited since she could not find information on which areas might be on fire.
Although no one in Portola Valley or Woodside was ultimately forced to evacuate because of the nearby CZU August Lighting Complex fires that burned over 86,000 acres, it was a wake-up call to the two small wooded towns that fire danger needs to remain top of mind. And fires are at the forefront of the minds of local officials and residents as temperatures rise. Gov. Gavin Newsom said last summer that the CZU fire incident was a "coastal fire," noting that fires in this area are a "proof point" of a changing climate. Statewide, the average precipitation from July 2020 through June 2021 was 49% of average, the lowest ever for any June-July rainfall year in California, according to data compiled by Jan Null, a consultant meteorologist in the Bay Area and founder of Golden Gate Weather Services.
The CZU fire was the largest fire in the Cal Fire CZU unit’s history, costing $68 million for over 2,400 firefighters to fight the fire across San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, said Deputy Chief Nate Armstrong during an April talk on lessons learned from the fire.
"The CZU fire was an inflection point for many of us," said Portola Valley Mayor Maryann Derwin during a June 3 forum called "Countywide Wildfire Risk and Resilience." "We realized if that fire jumped the fire line at Old Haul Road, it could have barreled down to Portola Valley, burning up structures, cars and anyone who didn't get out in time. The good news is, getting scared to the bone is a great motivator and we are now, more than ever, thinning out brush, cutting down flammable trees, 'hardening' houses and learning about our zones and evacuation routes."
A 2019 survey by USA Today and the Arizona Republic of small towns in 11 Western states found that Woodside and Portola Valley have similar fire risk as Paradise, California, where a November 2018 blaze killed 85 people and burned 19,000 structures. Cal Fire's fire hazard maps were last updated in 2008, but are expected to be updated in 2022, according to Portola Valley officials. The maps highlight the risk of wildfire in a particular area with a scale ranging from moderate to very high risk. According to a 2008 map prepared by Ray Moritz, a consultant in mapping fire-prone vegetation, threats rated "very high" exist in some Portola Valley neighborhoods, and threats deemed "high" exist in many others, based on the proximity and topography of fire-prone forested areas.
"Look, we've had two consecutive dry winters that have left us short 2-3 feet of missing rainfall since 2019," said Woodside Mayor Brian Dombkowski in an email. "We are facing a long, hot, dry summer. Against that backdrop, I have great concerns about the people, the structures and the natural beauty of Woodside and its surrounding communities."
Cities and towns across the state are required to update their safety elements by January 2023. Updates cover not just fires, but earthquakes, floods and other potential disasters.
"When it's in your backyard, it can't help but affect you," said Woodside Town Manager Kevin Bryant. "I don't think people here took it lightly. It (the CZU fires last year) confirmed people here can be affected, so we're being more vigilant and reinforced those efforts."
On top of local fire districts' preparation efforts like controlled burns, there are a number of initiatives that have been in the works to get ready for possible wildfires.
Local changes in response to 2020 fires
Portola Valley officials are spending more on fire services in the 2021-2022 fiscal year budget. There is an increase from $39,000 to $190,000 from the last fiscal year for vegetation management to keep the town's roads clear during a wildfire year over year. Much of their action is dictated by recommendations by its ad hoc wildfire preparedness committee.
Efforts underway that the committee recommended to the Town Council include modifying building codes to require non-combustible deck material ember resistant vents, dualpane tempered glass windows and skylights, and mesh screens on operable skylights, which would apply to new construction and substantial renovations.
In May, the council adopted one of the committee’s recommendations: a ban on planting five flammable plants. Homeowners are also encouraged to remove the five types — pine, juniper, eucalyptus, cypress and acacia — since they ignite, burn, and spread fire more readily than other trees, such as oaks. The committee also recommended that owners of any undeveloped property in town larger than 50 acres be required to develop a vegetation management plan, which the Woodside Fire Protection District would need to approve.
"The CZU (Lightning Complex) fire(s) was, for many residents, the first time the reality of wildfire danger revealed itself, and the council's primary priority this year is continued mitigation and resiliency efforts," the 2021-22 budget states.
The Woodside Fire Protection District recently presented its desired fire code amendments to the Woodside Town Council for comment.
"While the council is clearly trying to balance a number of competing priorities to find an optimal path forward, those reach code asks include: prohibiting combustibles within five feet of any underground transformer; a 200 foot defensible space program requirement for any structure on or near a 30% slope; and requiring properties larger than 50 acres to submit a vegetation management plan," Dombkowski said.
Since the CZU fires, Cal Fire's San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties division, Cal Fire CZU, as well as other county groups have been working on various projects to protect against wildfires. Woodside and Portola Valley have both stepped up their fuel reduction efforts, said Denise Enea, former Woodside Fire Protection District fire marshal and president of Fire Safe San Mateo County, the organization dedicated to protecting property and the environment for county residents in the wildland/urban interface.
“It's not just going to be more engines, it’s not just going to be more hand crews, it’s not going to just be more vegetation management, it’s not just going to be prescribed burning, it’s going to be more of everything,” explained Jonathan Cox, deputy chief of Cal Fire CZU, during the April Cal Fire talk, speaking about how the county can prevent a catastrophic wildfire.
This summer, Cal Fire began a two-year project, alongside the county parks department and resource conservation district, to thin forest floor vegetation and remove trees that are dead, diseased, and those up to 8 inches in diameter, to reduce fire fuel in 402 acres in Wunderlich and Huddart parks. Tall, dense brush will also be cleared along park boundaries, fire roads and residential roads, which is key in maintaining community evacuation routes and supporting emergency response and firefighting activities, according to Fire Safe. With less burnable material on the ground, a fire is less intense and the risk of wildfire spread is decreased. In both parks, which both abut private homes in the town of Woodside, there is a significant amount of fire fuel from trees impacted by sudden oak death syndrome and drought and invasive species that can create overly dense forests, according to Fire Safe.
Several acres have been completed to date (as of July 11), Enea said. The project is funded through a $5.3 million regional effort to reduce wildfire fuel loads over 968 acres of forest across the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Fire Safe also has an $80,000 PG&E grant to conduct a shaded fuel break — thinning and removing more flammable understory vegetation while leaving most larger, fire-tolerant trees in place — along 3 miles of Highway 35 in Woodside. This stretch runs from Old La Honda Road to Highway 84, said Enea.
"Highway 35 serves as an important evacuation route for all (of) Skyline and residents on the west side of Highway 35," Enea explained. Reducing the amount of overhanging and encroaching vegetation from the road by approximately 50 feet will decrease the rate of spread and intensity of any ignitions and allow for a much safer roadway for any necessary evacuations, according to Enea. Fire Safe also applied for a grant for a little over $2 million to continue this shaded fuel break along the entire 25 mile stretch of Highway 35 in San Mateo County.
Fire Safe expanded its neighborhood chipping program from nine high risk neighborhoods in 2020 to 18 this year, Enea said. The Woodside fire district collects brush and tree limbs — free of charge — from residents in maintaining defensible space against wildfires around their homes.
"Both towns have a robust roadside mowing program which started early this year in anticipation of an intense fire season," Enea said. For several years, the town of Woodside has removed large target hazard trees such as Monterey pine and eucalyptus (trees along the roadside and hanging over power lines), which have been identified by the fire marshal as potential ignition risks, she said.
Woodside Fire Protection District has staff inspect homes to make sure residents have conformed to the local fire code and completed all their mandated fuel reduction work around their homes and perimeter of their property.
"These programs and continued fuels reduction won't necessarily stop an ignition, however it will significantly reduce the rate of spread and the intensity of an ignition,” she said. "Building new ignition-resistant home hardening and hardening the existing structures and maintaining 30 to 100 (feet) of defensible space along with aggressive hazardous fuel reduction will allow vegetation ignitions to remain small and allow firefighters to quickly extinguish, which is the key to preventing catastrophic wildfire in the WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) communities like Woodside and Portola Valley."
Fire Safe has also applied for various other fire prevention grants. For example, it applied for a $2.6 million grant to do fire prevention work along 25 miles of Highway 35 and in four Midpeninsula Regional Open Space preserves. It applied for a $175,000 grant to have a coordinator from the California Fire Safe Council Community Wildfire Resiliency Program work in the county.
Last summer, the county adopted the Zonehaven platform, designed to give first responders and the public evacuation information. It allows agencies to make decisions on when to evacuate and which zones to evacuate while monitoring evacuation route traffic in real time.
Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, which is located in the eastern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains on 1,189 acres of land, installed San Mateo County's first ALERTWildfire camera to help firefighters spot potential fires last summer. The camera captures much of Portola Valley, according to the town.
A few of these cameras were installed to provide "eyes in the sky" to firefighters during the CZU fires, Cox of Cal Fire CZU explained.
Cox said cameras such as the ALERTWildfire ones "made it much easier" to locate remote lightning fires.
"They're becoming more and more important as we have more fires in this area," he said. "Changes in weather and fuel conditions are changing the frequency, size and behavior of fires locally."
CZU Cal Fire also received a $250,000 FEMA grant to participate in a drone program, which it might utilize to locate fires, Cox said.
Some want towns to do more to prepare
Portola Valley Neighbors United (PVNU) says its town is not doing enough to prepare for possible disasters, such as wildfires. PVNU was founded in January 2020 to "respond to several difficult town issues and preserve the town's rural nature," according to its website.
Rusty Day, a PVNU board member and resident of Portola Valley's Westridge neighborhood since 1989, said the Town Council needs to prioritize fire preparedness more. The group would like the town to develop a wildfire prevention and safety ordinance (something it proposed in July 2020) and hold regular disaster drills that the public can take part in.
At the July 14 Town Council meeting after The Almanac’s press deadline, the council will form a subcommittee to work with state and regional bodies to address housing mandates in areas of high fire danger, the difficulty of obtaining homeowners insurance in high fire danger areas, and the fact that there is not a single, accepted Cal Fire map for all agencies to refer to, Portola Valley Town Manager Jeremy Dennis said.
"Wildfires are a contagious hazard just like a virus," Day said. "Unless we grapple with that with sound public policy, we are left to suffer the consequences of everyone's individual choices."
Comes, who also lives in Westridge and is PVNU's president, said she moved to the area for its beauty and rural character.
"We are rural and that's why we came here, we want that and we want other people to be able to enjoy that, but we need to be able to have the town have our back in making sure 4,600 residents are safe," said Comes, who has run through emergency evacuation drills with her daughter to prepare for a possible wildfire.
The two also said that the $190,000 set aside for vegetation management in Portola Valley's 2021-22 fiscal year budget isn't significant enough to help protect against a catastrophic wildfire.
Dennis clarified that the primary resource that a municipality spends on fire prevention is for staff to craft ordinances and policies. For instance, Dennis spends about 15% to 20% of his time in any given week working on safety issues like wildfire preparedness. This is true, to different percentages, for the assistant to the town manager, the communications analyst, the town attorney, the planning and building director, and the public works director, he noted.
Other fire-related expenditures in Portola Valley in the last year, according to Dennis, include:
• $15,000 for a consultant to write the town's upcoming home hardening ordinance (tentatively scheduled for council review in August)
• About $20,000 to purchase and implement a virtual emergency operations center (spread over 2020 and 2021)
• $20,000 to support traffic engineering analysis of evacuation issues
• $63,732 for support of the Citizens Emergency Response and Preparedness Program (created in 1997 to promote community-based disaster preparedness and response in the Woodside Fire Protection District) and chipper program
• $20,000 to update the town's safety element
• $100,000 to study undergrounding the town's utilities
• A resource grant from Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW), with Woodside, the county and Woodside Fire Protection District for the development of additional tools, such as a community wildfire protection plan, in the next year
Dombkowski said he couldn't be happier that an increasing number of residents are taking advantage of Woodside's defensible space fund (residents can apply for 50% off their clearing costs, up to $3,000) to reduce their "collective risk to life and property." Defensible space is the area between a house and an oncoming wildfire where the vegetation has been modified and/or maintained in a way that significantly reduces fire fuel loads and the wildfire threat, and provides an opportunity for firefighters to more effectively defend the house, according to the town. Defensible space needs to be established a minimum of 30 feet from the perimeter of the property.
The following activities are examples of ways to create defensible space:
• Removal of dead brush and woody debris
• Mowing annual dry grasses
• Removal of trees for fire protection as recommended by Woodside Fire Protection District
He said the town's defensible space program is "perhaps the strongest program of its type in the Bay Area," having reduced over $2.8 million of fire fuel load work on private properties since 2010.
The 2022 and 2023 fiscal year budgets each allocate $350,000 to the program.
Defensible space is one of those "tough problems" in that there are contradictory issues that cannot be easily reconciled, Dombkowski noted.
"For instance, the tension between vegetation removal for fire safety and its visual and scenic impacts, erosion and slide potential, habitat removal, increased heat resulting from decreased shade, and last but certainly not least, its economic impact on homeowners," he explained. "Conflicts between mutually desirable goals are inevitable of course."
"Home hardening" is also covered in the program, which can include:
• Replacement of existing wood shake roof with a non-wood shake roof
• Installation of non-combustible ember-resistant vent screens and/or installation of chimney spark arrestors
• Installation of a seismic gas shut-off device or valve that will shut off gas automatically in an earthquake
"We all have to be active members of the community this fire season"
Dombkowski said residents need to be vigilant and prepared this fire season.
"Create a 'grab and go' binder for your important documents, create a checklist of your family heirlooms and collectibles, and understand your evacuation plans, including where your family and animals can reunite safely with friends or family out of the immediate area," he said. "And when you are asked to evacuate, go early, don't be the one clogging up the roads and diverting emergency resources when they are needed the most on the front lines. We are all in this together."
PVNU treasurer Nan Shostak, a geologist, said she feels "pretty uncomfortable" going into this fire season.
"I'm seeing what I can do to make (my property) more resistant (to fire)," said Shostak, who lives in a 6-year-old house. She said the landscape work and tree trimming she needs to do is going to be expensive.
"We need a local cultural shift (to removing trees from close to homes in town)," she said. "Every day I look around and I see fire hazards."