Viewpoint - March 11, 2009

Editorial: Time for Portola Valley to adopt fire map

In the last few years, California has been plagued with wildland forest fires, many in populated areas, that have caused billions of dollars in property damage and in some cases taken lives.

Fortunately, such conflagrations have not occurred in Portola Valley and Woodside, both rural communities that back up to wooded hillsides that are loaded with tons of tinder-dry vegetation. The danger remains. Once this fuel is ignited, under the right conditions of wind and humidity, a fire can spread in minutes, threatening hundreds of residents whose only escape route is likely to be a two-lane road.

In the wake of a two-year drought and an increased incidence of fires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) last year sent draft wildfire hazard maps to hundreds of communities and their fire districts with requests for deliberation and comment. Cal Fire was then to make revisions and adopt final maps. The maps estimate locations of "very high" fire risk areas based on vegetation, and require adoption of tougher building codes and landscape management so as to slow the spread of wildfires. Some 200 local towns and cities, including Woodside, have accepted the maps.

This is why recent actions of Portola Valley's Town Council — refusing to adopt the Cal Fire maps showing severe fire danger in the Woodside Highlands neighborhood — seem oddly out of place for a town that, in virtually every other respect, has shown itself to be very well managed.

The details of the town's situation are complicated. When Cal Fire asked for comments last spring on a map that showed Portola Valley as having no "very high" risk areas, council members sent the map back without comment despite the town's own commissioned map showing significant risk areas and that map's nearly complete agreement with a map prepared by the Woodside Fire Protection District. Those maps show severe risks in several neighborhoods, including Westridge, Alpine Hills, and parts of Portola Valley Ranch. The council appeared to be responding to homeowners' concerns about higher insurance costs. Another impact: requirements to use fire retardant building materials for new home construction, which can add expense and, in the minds of many, take away charm.

Why Cal Fire narrowed the severity to the Highlands and ignored the on-the-ground scientific analysis by the fire district is a question for another day, but the council reaffirmed its balking stance on the Cal Fire map on Feb. 25, with member Ted Driscoll saying he didn't "see a reason why we should proceed at all," adding that he would like to see a Cal Fire representative explain the Highlands designation to the council before the mid-April deadline to approve the map. Council members also know that Cal Fire has no power to force local communities to accept its labels, a fire truck-size loophole.

In agreeing to sidestep the state's map, Mayor Ann Wengert said the town's own map is complete and that fire safety strategies may soon follow, possibly including a fire-safe code update that would cover the town.

This is not adequate. Current and future residents of Portola Valley deserve more of their council. In the first place, withholding approval of the Cal Fire maps will not hide the potential fire risk from insurance companies, which have their own maps. And although a Cal Fire "very high" risk designation requires real estate agents to warn potential home buyers, we doubt if it will surprise anyone or halt a sale. As for adjusting building codes to require fire-retardant material, this is simply a sensible requirement that most residents should embrace. In neighboring Woodside, the Town Council agreed to apply regulations to the entire community, not just certain neighborhoods.

Taking prudent precautions to prevent wildfires is a very sensible way to go for Portola Valley. It is time for the council to move forward and adopt the state's fire map and craft a fire-safe building code for the entire town.


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