Drought has accelerated the start of fire season, prompting authorities to issue a reminder to local residents: Don’t brush aside the responsibility of keeping yards free of dangerous fuels that could feed flames.
“It’s starting much earlier than last year,” said Duffy Price, president of the Los Altos Hills County Fire District. “We want to make sure that all of Los Altos Hills and the unincorporated areas take it seriously.”
According to a summer fire forecast from the National Interagency Coordination Center’s Predictive Services Program, “off the charts” drought conditions make Northern California a likely target for major fires.
Although Battalion Chief Joe Parker of the Santa Clara County Fire Department said there have been fewer wildfires and brush fires in the county this year compared with the same time last year, all indicators point to this season becoming more destructive. As new grass from late spring rain dries out, Parker said it could fuel more wildfires.
Year-to-date, Los Altos Hills has experienced one brush fire, sparked by juniper tree vegetation on a vacant property. Crews extinguished the fire quickly, in part due to the full-time wildfire season team in place at the El Monte Fire Station. Engine 374 is scheduled to be fully staffed 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through October.
Clearing the way to safety
Being prepared to respond to wildfires is only one part of the equation. Authorities said property owners’ commitment to reducing hazards is another.
The Santa Clara County Fire Department’s brush abatement program and the county Department of Agriculture’s weed abatement program are among the efforts in place to ensure that residents clear the hazards that can ignite small sparks into larger brush and wildfires.
“We work together,” said the county weed abatement coordinator Moe Kumre of the two programs.
Kumre said his program prevents the spread of wildfires from open space to adjacent properties, and the brush abatement program from yards to individual homes and structures. Over the past three years, 362 properties in the Los Altos Hills County Fire District were noncompliant at some point. If a property maintains compliance for three years, it is removed from the list.
The brush abatement program oversees 11,000 properties, according to Santa Clara County Senior Deputy Fire Marshall Julie Linney.
“We send the crews out to educate people face to face,” she said.
In February, residents who owned land identified as a fire risk in Los Altos Hills and unincorporated areas of the county received a flier with wildfire safety information and brush-clearing instructions. Property owners were instructed to create a 30-foot defensible zone around any structures and to trim vegetation so that trees and shrubs would be less likely to serve as ladders for a spreading fire.
Linney said fire crews from the El Monte and Loyola stations inspected hazardous properties in April to confirm that they complied with the Uniform Fire Code. If violations were found, the crews left door-hanger notices. Property owners also were alerted via mail.
“Enforcement is the last step – the step that we don’t want to take,” Parker said.
After the initial inspections, the Los Altos Hills County Fire District passed a resolution in May listing the parcels cited by the Santa Clara County fire marshal as public nuisances. The district has scheduled a meeting 7 p.m. June 17 at the district offices, 12355 S. El Monte Road, to allow owners of parcels in violation to lodge objections.
If vegetation is not cleared 10 days before the meeting, the county is authorized to hire a contractor to complete the work and bill the owner for the services by adding a fee to the property tax. Linney noted that compliance among property owners is high, and generally only a handful of parcels remain in violation of the code after the final inspections.
Although high-risk properties are a priority, programs to reduce fire risk are offered to all residents of Los Altos Hills and unincorporated areas. In addition to a voluntary eucalyptus risk mitigation program, dead-tree removal and brush chipping, Los Altos Hills County Fire District and GreenWaste, the refuse service contracted by Los Altos Hills, offer residents opportunities to dispose of brush and yard waste. Collections are scheduled the third Saturday of each month in Parking Lot 6 at Foothill College, 12345 S. El Monte Road. The next collection dates are June 21 and July 19.
Kumre added that residents with questions or concerns about hazardous vegetation on their properties may contact the weed abatement program to schedule a free home inspection. Anonymous reports may also be filed with the county Department of Agriculture should concerns be arise about a neighboring property that could pose a fire hazard.
For more information, visit lahcfd.org or sccgov.org/sites/wap.