News - July 9, 2008

Atherton residents create their own wildfire escape plan

• Group says official efforts moved too slowly.

by Andrea Gemmet

An ad hoc group of Atherton residents, worried about the severe fire season, is disseminating a brochure and map showing emergency fire evacuation routes for the rural Walsh Road neighborhood west of Alameda de las Pulgas.

Peter Carpenter, who is on the board of directors of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, said he and his group were frustrated by the slow pace of official efforts by the district and the town. The group worked to get the brochure ready before the holiday weekend, and sent it out before noon on Thursday, July 3, using an e-mail tree to distribute it, Mr. Carpenter said.

"We've been asking for this for the past year, and finally we just decided to do it ourselves," said Mr. Carpenter, who lives across town in Lindenwood.

"I'm not at risk, but I do perceive myself as being a member of this community, and I would deeply regret it if nothing had been done," Mr. Carpenter said.

The group targeted Walsh Road because it has the worst access, according to Mr. Carpenter — but other West Atherton neighborhoods are also in need of detailed evacuation plans, he said. Over the weekend, a fire causing an estimated $500,000 in damage broke out at a home on Ridgeview Drive, which is in West Atherton but not in the Walsh Road corridor.

Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman responded diplomatically to the group's criticism, but said that the district is well prepared to respond to fires in the Walsh Road area and has not been sitting idly by.

"I applaud (Mr. Carpenter's) efforts, but I don't want to get into the politics of it," Chief Schapelhouman said. "Having citizens get information is never a bad thing, but agreeing to the information is the critical piece. Government agencies don't want to get out information that may or may not be accurate."

Fire district and town officials, as well as representatives of California Water Service Co. and the neighborhood, have been meeting and are ready to install signs pointing out evacuation routes. A just-inked agreement with the Menlo Circus Club on Park Lane designates the Atherton country club's grounds as an emergency evacuation and information center, and this year's firefighter training was held on the Bear Gulch Reservoir property off Walsh Road, Chief Schapelhouman said.

The citizens' Walsh Road evacuation brochure shows a secondary escape route via Reservoir Road that uses a private road by the Bear Gulch Reservoir that's owned by Cal Water. The brochure pinpoints the location of a pedestrian and equestrian tunnel under Interstate 280 leading up to Woodside. Residents are encouraged to consider evacuating on foot if necessary, Mr. Carpenter said.

A paper version of the brochure, printed at the group's expense, will be coming out in a few weeks with any corrections and amendments, Mr. Carpenter said.

Chief Schapelhouman said that while the Walsh Road corridor is woodsy and steep compared with other parts of Atherton, it's rated only moderate to high risk, unlike areas of Woodside and Portola Valley that have very high risk ratings. The number of wildfires currently burning in the state has people understandably nervous, but the situation here is different, he said.

"(Walsh Road) is protected by a municipal fire department. We have a four- to six-minute response time, and our goal is to get up there and get (the fire) out," Chief Schapelhouman said. "Up in Paradise, in the woods, the response time (for firefighters) would be 15 to 30 minutes, and things can get out of control in that period of time."

Last month, firefighters canvassed the neighborhood handing out information about reducing fire danger by creating "defensible space" around homes, he said.

Mr. Carpenter, however, clearly doesn't see the district's efforts as adequate. Over the weekend, he sent out an e-mail to the Atherton City Council and his fellow fire board members castigating them for failing to get the plan done before the start of fire season.

"I am proud to serve as part of the citizens group which prepared this plan but I am ashamed to be an elected official whose board has failed to serve my community," Mr. Carpenter's e-mail said.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 8, 2008 at 6:14 pm

Both the Fire District and the government of the Town of Atherton were given the opportunity to participate in the preparation of this plan and to comment on the draft plan before it was finalized - neither identified any inaccurate information.

As an experienced wildland firefighter I know that emergency access to and from the Alameda end of Welsh Road could easily be cut off by a wildfire before the District could contain such a fire. Responding to a wildland fire and containing it are two very different matters. The Oakland hills fire was also served by a superb municipal fire department and look what happened. Denial is not a good preparedness strategy

Posted by Susan Ayers Walker, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jul 9, 2008 at 3:21 pm

It is important for the Town of Atherton and the Fire District to be pro-active with neighborhoods they consider at risk and approach those neighborhoods with communication and a plan first. With no plan we had to develop our own means of escape. Up-front communication is vital to save lives not after the fact.

The neighbors of Walsh Road and its ajoining streets are organizing ourselves, we are getting CERT and HAM radio training to help ourselves. As of today -- we do not have a plan from the Town or Fire District as to how or where to evacuate in a fire. So we will follow the map Peter Carpenter and his group developed. We hope that a plan is in the works and will be forth coming before the fire season is over.

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