By Dave Boyce
A severe risk of wildfire, according to a recent analysis by the Woodside Fire Protection District, exists in several neighborhoods in Portola Valley, a woodland town abutting the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In a separate analysis, to which the Woodside fire district contributed its views of the threat, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection updated a map that had shown no areas of severe risk, but overruled the district by showing "very high" risks only along the town's northern border -- the Woodside Highlands neighborhood.
In early December, Cal Fire sent Portola Valley its map and, in keeping with state law, gave the town 120 days to craft an ordinance accepting the findings. (View the map.)
The "very high" label affects new home construction, requiring the use of ignition-resistant materials and fire-safe landscape management. But if a town government chooses not to adopt the map -- as seems likely in Portola Valley after a Feb. 25 hearing in which residents complained about the impact of the label on their insurance rates -- there is no apparent penalty.
"The law is very specific about the (Cal Fire) director's responsibilities and what the director is not to do," Wayne Mitchell, Cal Fire's staff chief for fire planning, said in an interview. "The director cannot rebut the decision of local government."
In recommending inaction on accepting the map, Councilman Ted Driscoll said, "I don't, frankly, at this point, see a reason why we should proceed at all," adding that he'd like to invite in a Cal Fire representative to explain the map before the mid-April deadline.
Mayor Ann Wengert noted that the town's own risk map is now complete and that strategies for fire safety should follow, possibly including a town-wide building-code update. Residents seemed to welcome the idea.
"I certainly agree with my colleagues in that I see no compelling reason to accept this map," Ms. Wengert added.
Residents greeted the council's decision with scattered applause.
Cal Fire's map is one of hundreds sent to jurisdictions last year. "In the grand scheme of things, I think we've made tremendous progress," Mr. Mitchell said. Some 200 local jurisdictions have adopted the updated maps, he said, a group that includes Woodside.
"They get it. I think we're seeing very good support of the program," he said. "By and large, they're moving along and adopting the zones and setting up the ordinances and moving on."
What's the risk?
Another constituency likely affected if the Portola Valley council does not adopt Cal Fire's map: future homeowners in Woodside Highlands. Not accepting Cal Fire's "very high" risk label means the label is not official. With an official designation, real estate agents are required to make a "point-of-sale" disclosure to prospective home buyers about the risks, Mr. Mitchell said.
Asked to comment, he said that home buyers might remain ignorant of the risks "unless the local jurisdiction takes some other measures to take care of their citizens."
No residents spoke up to support the Cal Fire map, but they did have suggestions on fire safety.
"I think we should all abide by (rigorous building-code chapter) 7A," resident Richard Crevelt told the council and the assembled neighbors. "It makes a lot of sense for us."
A designation on a map "won't do a bit of good for us," he said, adding that what really matters is community action. Among his ideas: hydrant checks, dead tree removal and roads kept clear.
Wayside Road resident Chris Buja said he recently lost his insurance after 24 years with the same company. He had to hurry, but did find new insurance at a lower rate, he said.
Insurance company representatives say they don't' rely on Cal Fire maps.
Steve Toben, a council member who sat in the audience during the discussion because he lives in the Highlands neighborhood, didn't mince words in his frustration with the fire district, which had communicated its harsher views of the wildfire threat to Cal Fire.
"I'm quite troubled by the fact that we owe our troubles tonight to actions by the Woodside Fire Protection District," he said. "That will have major financial impact on 400 people who live in Portola Valley."
Citing property tax revenues of $7 to the town for every $17 the fire district receives, Mr. Toben said his neighborhood deserves something back, including meetings with residents, more funding and more staff. "If we're going to be stuck with this designation, I think the district owes us," he said.
Fire Chief Armando Muela briefly addressed residents' complaints. In an interview, he said Portola Valley's fire station already has an extra person, that the district is helping to train residents for emergencies, and that the Portola Valley station is equipped to fight Highland fires with its 3,200-gallon water truck and a "Patrol" vehicle designed for tight spaces.
The town, through building department regulations, sets levels of risk to homes, he added.
Asked about the council's stand on the Cal Fire map, he noted that the Woodside council unanimously approved its map, which has several "very high" risk zones, including along the Portola Valley border.
Here are two communities, he said, separated by a town border and by how they're tackling this issue. Woodside is "moving forward," while Portola Valley is "very concerned about the labeling component of it," he noted.
The fire district has been advocating for fire-resistant roofs with little success, he said. "Now that we have a map, now there's interest," he said. "The map was the catalyst to get it on the radar."
"I feel for the homeowners that live in those areas (but) there is a wildland threat there and we're behind" in addressing it, he added. "The fuel grows and grows over the years and we haven't been on top of that component."