Mountain Fire ignites LAH policy changes

Sarah Robustelli/Specialto the Town Crier
Santa Clara County and CAL FIRE firefighters battle the Mountain Fire, a 5-acre wildfire that ignited in Byrne Preserve when a lawnmower blade struck a rock July 20. The fire has prompted Los Altos Hills officials to re-examine town policies associated with open space mowing.

Los Altos Hills City Manager Carl Cahill brought a stack of cards with him to last month’s Los Altos Hills County Fire District meeting.

“I have some of these handwritten thank you notes that I worked on today, thanking the fire department for saving my job,” he said, passing the stack to Tony Bowden, Santa Clara County Fire Department assistant fire chief.

Bowden and meeting attendees laughed, but they could appreciate Cahill’s gratitude: It took approximately 200 county and CAL FIRE first responders, eight engines, two bulldozers and a water-dropping helicopter to tame the Mountain Fire, the 5-acre Byrne Preserve blaze a lawnmower ignited July 20. Their quick work helped Los Altos Hills dodge injury to humans and structures, including nearby Westwind Community Barn and homes along Red Rock Road. But the scare has prompted city officials to examine town policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Allen Chen, Los Altos Hills Public Works director, leads that effort.

“We were lucky,” Chen said. “This could have been a lot worse than it was.”

Efforts to prevent wildfires actually sparked this one. A contract worker hired to remove yellow starthistle, an invasive weed considered a fire risk, accidentally ignited the preserve when his lawnmower blades struck a rock. His company apologized – sort of.

“They did apologize,” Chen said. “They claimed it was an act of God, but I just can’t take that for an answer. We have to look at our guidelines.”

New guidelines

Unfortunately, mowing is an all-too-common source of wildfires, said G. Ryan Cronin, Santa Clara County Fire Department arson investigator. In this case, a mechanical problem delayed the contractor’s start until mid-afternoon, by which time the preserve grasses and weeds were dry and ripe for ignition.

“That’s why we tell people to mow early in the morning,” Cronin said.

In addition to moving up mowing time in the day, Los Altos Hills’ new guidelines will likely bump it up to earlier in the season, when vegetation contains more residual moisture from winter rains and is therefore more fire resistant, Chen said.

He’s learned that fire officials recommend mowing large open spaces by first tackling the outer edges of the site and moving progressively inward. Working this way creates a natural firebreak that helps contain any flames that do ignite.

Cronin said the town also should consider enlisting a spotter or a water truck to stand vigil during mow jobs.

Any new policy Los Altos Hills elects to adopt won’t be implemented until next year, however; open space mowing in town is complete for the season and persistent weeds will succumb to a mere weed whacker, Chen said.

In the meantime, the scorched earth left behind by the Mountain Fire will heal.

Chen and an arborist inspected the blackened site last week. It appears the flames licked 20 or so oak trees, and it will take six months to a year to know if they’re salvageable. The next rainy season should restore the preserve grasses, he added.

“I very much want to make sure we really don’t see this anymore,” Chen said. “We were already very lucky. We want to learn from this.”

To follow the town’s fire prevention efforts and view images from the Mountain Fire, visit

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