A deadline has passed without the Portola Valley Town Council acting to formally adopt a wildfire hazard map prepared by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The council had until April 14 to accept a Cal Fire map that showed a "very high" risk of wildfire in the northwest corner of town, including the Woodside Highlands neighborhood. The agenda for the April 8 meeting did not mention the map, and the next scheduled meeting is April 22.
Mayor Ann Wengert said in an interview after the April 8 meeting that the council, at its Feb. 25 meeting, had, in her estimation, reached a consensus: the town will establish its own wildfire hazards policies in concert with a community discussion that will likely lead to amending the building code to increase fire resistance throughout town.
"We wanted to consider all the aspects (of fire protection) and not just the Cal Fire map," she told The Almanac, adding that the missed deadline does not mean that the Cal Fire map won't be adopted.
Several neighborhoods have severe wildfire risks, according to a map prepared by the Woodside Fire Protection District, which serves Portola Valley. This map, district officials said, was based on a scientific analysis of terrain, prevailing winds and the types and moisture content of vegetation.
When the community discussion begins, there will be a third map -- the so-called "Moritz map" prepared for the town by consultant Ray Moritz -- that largely agrees with the fire district's map.
There are no penalties if Portola Valley does not adopt Cal Fire's map, but if it is adopted, real estate agents selling homes in areas labeled as "very high" risk would have to notify potential homebuyers.
Asked about the potential for a new Highlands homeowner to be uninformed about the risk, Ms. Wengert said the town has "always encouraged" full disclosure, and added: "I don't believe there would be a significant deviation by anyone in the real estate community."
A staff report, scheduled for the May 13 council meeting, will compile the council's recommendations, recent conversations with Cal Fire officials, and plans for the community discussion, Planning Manager Leslie Lambert said.
Shades of meaning
Cal Fire makes a distinction between the words "hazard" and "risk," according to its Web site's frequently asked questions (FAQ).
Hazards, the focus of Cal Fire maps, are factors that influence the potential for a wildfire, such as fuel type and quantity, degree of slope and weather, the FAQ says.
Risks, the FAQ says, concern the potential for damage, including a structure's flammability, the use of safety measures such as fire-resistant materials and designs, and the existence of a defensible space around a home such that vegetation won't readily burn.
Residents have argued that a "very high" risk designation would negatively impact their homeowners insurance. In interviews with The Almanac, insurers have said that they have their own maps and do not consider Cal Fire maps.
That may be, but there is no guarantee, Cal Fire says in its FAQ. "However," it adds, "to respond to such issues, the California Department of Insurance and Cal Fire have established a partnership and joint commitment to protecting Californians from fire losses."
Cal Fire's process
In updating its wildfire hazard maps throughout the state, Cal Fire had sent out draft maps in early 2008 seeking comment from communities considered vulnerable to wildfire.
The draft map for Portola Valley showed no "very high" risk areas, and the council's comment back to Cal Fire did not argue with that view.
In sharp contrast was the map prepared by the Woodside fire district, which labeled parts of several neighborhoods as at severe risk, including Woodside Highlands, Westridge, Alpine Hills and Portola Valley Ranch.
Cal Fire considered both views and agreed with the district on the danger in the Highlands neighborhood, but not the other areas, Ms. Lambert said. Cal Fire officials then asked for and received the part of the Moritz map that dealt with the Highlands, she said.
Wayne Mitchell, Cal Fire's staff chief for fire planning, when asked to comment on the missed deadline, said: "We were trying very hard to work with Portola Valley and every local jurisdiction to have a very rigorous validating process before it gets this far."
In their Feb. 25 discussion, council members said they were dissatisfied with a state bureaucracy weighing in on a controversial local issue without coming to town to explain its reasoning and respond to questions. Another point: the "very high" risk designation, once applied, appears difficult to remove.
Ms. Lambert, looking back on contacts with five Cal Fire officials in recent weeks, said they are "pleased" that the council is looking at amending the building code to increase fire resistance.
"They have offered to come and meet ... and do whatever they need to do" to move that plan forward, she said. "I think they've been very responsive."