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Hills resident makes home fire prevention his mission

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Courtesy of Dave Stewart
Los Altos Hills resident Dave Stewart has worked to make his property fire resistant, including pruning the trees above his garage so the branches don’t come too close to the structure.

Los Altos Hills resident Dave Stewart has long believed in the importance of wildfire protection efforts and continues to practice what he preaches by once again clearing brush and trimming trees on his wooded property, as well as making his home itself more fire resistant.

A Community Emergency Response Team supervisor, Stewart has been called the “poster boy” of wildfire protection because of his efforts to create a defensible space around his house and his mission to educate others. His work was also the subject of an article published in the Oct. 2, 2019, edition of the Town Crier.

Fire protection is top of mind for many local homeowners right now, following the CZU Lightning Complex fires that triggered evacuation warnings for areas bordering Los Altos Hills last month.

Wanting to learn more about how to protect his family and property, two summers ago Stewart registered for a free one-day workshop offered by the Santa Clara County Fire Department titled “Ready, Set, Go.” The workshop is fundamental to the Community Wildfire Protection Plan developed by the Santa Clara County Fire Department and adopted by the Los Altos Hills County Fire District.

He applied what he’d learned and tackled his overgrown property knowing full well the project was huge.

“It took three men four to five days to begin with,” he said. “There was a 6-foot berm of debris, brush and tree branches along the road and up the
driveway when they finished.”

After Stewart completed the “property hygiene,” he called the fire district, which offers free brush chipping and removal services.

This was just the beginning of Stewart’s “property hardening” efforts. (Property hardening is the assessment of flammable areas and objects with the goal of reducing or modifying components known to spread fire.)

“Even though you may feel overwhelmed, it’s important to just get started. It’s not a one-week project,” he said. “It’s something that takes time. Just do it.”

That’s what he’s been doing – one project at a time.

Of concern are “fire ladders,” live or dead vegetation that allows a fire to climb up from the landscape into the tree canopy. His home overlooks a wooded canyon that cuts a wide swath through the landscape. Consequently, clearing underbrush is essential.

Home hazards

Earlier this month Stewart walked the property with a Home Ignition Zone inspector who identified home hazards such as eave vents and gaps in the siding that would allow swirling embers to enter the house. Stewart is replacing the standard 1/4-inch vent screening with 1/8-inch or finer window screening and sealing the gaps.

Precautions such as these apply to flatlanders as well as Hills dwellers because wind-driven embers can fall anywhere. Following are ways to help protect your property.

Create green space

Create 30 feet of lean, clean and green around your home.

  • Remove dead plants, grass and weeds.
  • Remove dead or dry leaves and pine needles from your yard, roof and rain gutters.
  • Keep tree branches 10 feet away from your chimney and other trees.

Reduce fuel potential

Reduce fuel between the 30-foot zone and the 100-foot perimeter of defensible space.

  • Cut or mow annual grass down to a maximum height of 4 inches.
  • Create horizontal spacing between shrubs and trees.
  • Create vertical spacing between shrubs and trees. Large trees do not have to be cut and removed as long as all of the plants beneath them are removed. This eliminates a vertical fire ladder.

Other options to consider

  • Replace wooden shake shingle roofs and wooden siding.
  • Be aware that many ornamental plants are very flammable, especially when in flower beds with flammable wood chips and mulches that serve as a receptive bed for flying embers. Plants ignite and expose siding and under-eave area to direct flame contact.
  • Remove plants, vegetation and combustible materials from under a wood deck and 5 feet around the deck and home. Install noncombustible fiber-cement sheathing on the bottom of the joints of the deck, but be sure to leave a way for water and rain to drain through.
  • Windows can be a fire hazard. Even before a window is in direct contact with flames, the intense heat of a nearby fire can cause the glass to break. And a broken window allows flames to enter. In addition, the heat from a fire outside might be enough to simply ignite flammable items inside a home without direct contact. Consider installing fire-resistant windows.
  • Fire-resistant insulation can help prevent or slow fires.
  • Fire-retardant sprays like Safe-T-Guard may help protect exterior wood.

For more information on the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s workshops and emergency preparedness classes, visit sccfd.org.

For more information on wildfire protection, visit readyforwildfire.org (Cal Fire) or lahcfd.org (Los Altos Hills County Fire District).

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