Portola Valley: Council may rue decision to withhold fire map
• Cal Fire suspects it's not getting the whole story from Portola Valley on wildfire risk.
Home fire insurance rates are a major concern in wooded parts of Portola Valley. The potential impact on fire insurance was a key factor in an April 23 decision by a unanimous Town Council to tell the state's firefighting agency that no updates were needed to its current map, which shows no "very high" wildfire risks presented by vegetation in the town.
Council members knew of several "very high" risk neighborhoods in town as described in a map recently prepared by fire-hazard consultant Ray Moritz and commissioned by the town. The council agreed not to include that map in its comments to the state and to fast-track steps to address local wildfire risks. But the state's curiosity about the fire risk has been aroused.
If the state published that risk information, insurance companies could use it "without any nuance (as) a blunt instrument to redline Portola Valley," said Councilman Steve Toben in concurring with an opinion expressed at the April 23 meeting by Planning Commissioner Nate McKitterick, an attorney who has worked for insurance companies.
"We should accept that (benign) state map and move on," Councilman Ted Driscoll said at that meeting. "Why are we airing our laundry to the state?"
Now it seems that by not sending the Moritz map to the state, Portola Valley officials may have dealt themselves a losing hand: the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, knows of the existence of the Moritz map and is now taking a closer look at the town's fire risk.
Cal Fire has received comments from Denise Enea, the fire marshal for the Woodside Fire Protection District, which includes Portola Valley. In a separate map, Ms. Enea maintains that parts of several neighborhoods — Woodside Highlands, Westridge, Alpine Hills and Portola Valley Ranch — should be labeled at "very high" risk for catastrophic fire.
The fire district's map is slightly harsher in its assessment than the Moritz map, Ms. Enea told The Almanac.
Online comments at Cal Fire's Web site show that the state and the Woodside fire district agree on the risk in parts of Woodside Highlands. They disagree, so far, on the "very high" risk designations for parts of Westridge, Alpine Hills and Portola Valley Ranch.
Town staff sided with Cal Fire on those last three neighborhoods and submitted a portion of the Moritz map to support a claim that parts of Woodside Highlands should also be spared the "very high" risk designation.
"Picking and choosing"
Dave Sapsis, a senior fire scientist at Cal Fire assigned to Portola Valley's map, said he is concerned that the town did some "picking and choosing" in forwarding data from the Moritz map.
"(Mr. Moritz's) analysis was, I believe, more extensive," Mr. Sapsis said, noting that he has collaborated with Mr. Moritz before. "If I haven't received that information, I'll have to seek it out."
In an interview, Town Planner George Mader said: "It may prove to be unfortunate that Ray Moritz's map was not sent to the state (in its entirety) since it's possible that the state will issue a map that shows more 'very high' hazards," than would otherwise have been the case.
During the next few weeks, Cal Fire will be weighing the lower fire risk designations on the state's old map against the harsh assessment it received from the fire district.
"I can't make a political move here," Fire Marshal Enea said, defending her view of the wildfire risk. "I have to make the right move."
Ms. Enea should have been more forthcoming with the town about comments to Cal Fire, Mayor Maryann Derwin said. "No one knew it was even happening." The fire district should inform the town when taking actions "that affect our residents," Ms. Derwin said.
Fire district board member John Gardner responded: "It was pretty clear to me that they (council members) were on notice that we were going to submit comments. You've got a fire-education problem here. The whole (fire) board supports being honest (to Cal Fire) about this whole thing."
Referring to Ms. Enea, Mr. Gardner noted that she is a fire marshal, not a politician. "That's why we have her," he added.
"Very high" explained
Designations of "very high" risk by the state are likely to force homeowners and developers in those areas to meet higher fire-resistant standards in building new homes. Major remodels are not affected.
A town can forego a tougher building code for "very high" risk areas, but then could be liable if Cal Fire is called in to fight a wildfire, Mr. Sapsis of Cal Fire said.
Portola Valley's council may impose tougher building standards regardless of what the Cal Fire map eventually shows, council members acknowledge, but they are reluctant to have the town's vulnerability posted on the Cal Fire Web site.
(The Woodside fire district already has a requirement to create a "defensible space" of sparse vegetation around structures.)
Mr. Moritz has advised the council on how to dramatically reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire. Fire moves much more slowly, for example, when an urban forest is cleared of underbrush, he said.
A discussion of fire safety is ahead, Mayor Derwin said.
It was Planning Commissioner Leah Zaffaroni who, at the April 23 meeting, proposed fast-tracking local action to improve fire safety. Ms. Zaffaroni has called repeatedly about it, Ms. Derwin said. "We really need to get on it."
Would the council change the town's building code to require fire-resistant construction in some neighborhoods?
"I would take a hard line" for new standards, Ms. Derwin said. "I think it's reasonable."
Councilman Richard Merk, a retired builder, said fire-resistance measures could raise the cost of a new house by about 3 percent. "I don't know that it's that much of a burden," he said.
As for whether insurance companies use Cal Fire maps, Wayne Mitchell, a fire prevention official with Cal Fire, noted that they may use them, but that state vegetation maps are just one of several factors used to assess risk.
To see the fire maps, go to the Portola Valley Town Hall at 765 Portola Road and ask for Planning Manager Leslie Lambert.