The 2017 North Bay wildfires blazed across the state more than a year ago, but last week’s Los Altos Hills “Understanding Wildfire” forum provided constant reminders of their devastation.
The meeting, hosted by the Open Space Committee at town hall Oct. 30, presented a panel of experts from agencies including the Santa Clara County Fire Department, the Santa Clara County Fire Safe Council, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and PG&E. Approximately 60 members of the public attended.
“Right now, from November 2018 to January 2019, this is essentially, historically, the most destructive time of year for wildfire in California because of the transitioning weather and the prevalence for north wind events,” said Capt. Bill Murphy of the county fire department.
Topographical and weather event-related conditions separate Los Altos Hills from Santa Rosa, which bore the brunt of the deadly 36,000-acre Tubbs Fire last October, but that doesn’t mean local communities are immune, Murphy told audience members. The Santa Cruz Mountains, typically known for increased humidity levels caused by coastal influences, are experiencing drier and warmer conditions that make fuels more susceptible to ignition. It’s a trend noted throughout the state; while the number of blazes has not increased significantly, their size and intensity have. So far this year, California fires have torched 600,000 acres.
Panelists described ways emergency responders, local officials and service providers are taking proactive steps to prepare for wildfire.
In June, the Santa Clara County Fire Chiefs Association hosted a three-day mutual aid readiness exercise featuring participants from fire agencies throughout the county. The drill, with simulated flames and structure defense and a mock firefighter injury, took place in Byrne Preserve, site of the July 20, 2017, Mountain Fire. That blaze, ignited by a lawnmower, burned 5 acres but didn’t cause injuries or structural damage.
PG&E, which CAL FIRE blamed for causing at least a dozen of the North Bay fires through power line and equipment failure – much of it due to fallen tree limbs – adopted the Community Wildfire Safety Program to manage vegetation and to invest in better technology, such as stronger, covered utility lines. Active monitoring of weather conditions recently prompted the company to execute a pre-emptive public safety power shutoff for the first time; approximately 59,000 customers in extreme fire risk parts of Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado counties went without electricity for two days in mid-October until PG&E employees could inspect and test utility lines.
The company anticipates such shutoffs could occur one to two times a year within its service areas.
The Community Wildfire Safety Program began prior to the 2017 fire season, but the 2017 fire season accelerated it, according to PG&E public safety specialist Pam Perdue.
“The safety of our customers is first and foremost,” Perdue said.
Also in October, the Los Altos Hills City Council approved an evacuation plan for disasters including floods, earthquakes and fires. Forum panelist Marsha Hovey, the town’s emergency consultant, developed the plan with assistance from the county fire department and Sheriff’s Office. It details roles and responsibilities during an emergency, possible shelter locations, methods for warning the public and processes for repopulating areas once dangers have passed.
Hovey said she anticipates the implementation of yearly wildland fire evacuation community meetings once a year, with the first possibly scheduled for January.
What residents can do
Panelists encouraged audience members to prepare themselves and their homes in the event of wildfire.
Los Altos Hills residents can sign up for Nixle emergency notifications from town officials and for AlertSCC emergency notifications from Santa Clara County, Hovey said. They should also develop personal evacuation plans that include provisions for family members, neighbors, pets and precious personal belongings well in advance of threatening conditions.
“You should be planning when you hear the warning and even before,” she advised. “If you haven’t heard anything and you haven’t gotten an official invitation and you feel unsafe, get out. Because sometimes it happens so fast that we don’t – and it happened in Sonoma – it’s happening so fast that they don’t even have time to put out the information.”
Ready, Set, Go, a CAL FIRE communications program adopted by the county fire department, promotes the concept of defensible space, or the distance between properties and potential fire fuels like dead or dry vegetation. Los Altos Hills’ municipal code requires a 30-foot zone between homes and fuels, while state law mandates 100-foot zones in unincorporated areas.
“If you’ve maintained that defensible space, if you have good property hygiene around your house, there’s a very high likelihood that your house is going to survive the fire,” Murphy said.
To sign up for Nixle, visit losaltoshills.ca.gov/370/Emergency-Alerts---Register.
To sign up for AlertSCC, visit sccgov.org/sites/alertscc.
To sign up for PG&E wildfire alerts, visit pge.com/mywildfirealerts.