Fighting imaginary wildfires in Portola Valley

It's part of the drill

Click on pictures to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

In Portola Valley last week, 50 horses escaped their enclosures amid five wildfires -- or so 12 firefighting crews from departments across San Mateo County were told to imagine as they assembled for drills on fighting fires in forested communities.

With the Woodside Fire Protection District hosting the weeklong event from April 9 through 13, fire trucks cruised Portola Road between set ups at the fire station near Alpine Road, at the Spring Down Open Space just south of Town Center, and at the parking lot of Christ Episcopal Church just north of Town Center.

"It's a big, (annual) multi-disciplined exercise" in wildfire fighting skills, Training Captain Jake Pelk of the Central County Fire Department said in an interview. "It's more or less to get us prepared for what we know is a viable threat."

The focus this year: transport of water, a scarce resource in fighting a wildfire, Mr. Pelk said. A fire truck with a 500-gallon water tank was refilled at the exercise's one "working" hydrant and shuttled to the scene, where it was pumped into another truck that supplied a firefighter with a hose pointed at a supposedly burning tree.

The gear is designed for wildfires. The hoses are bright yellow for visibility in low-light conditions, lighter in weight so as to be easier to drag over longer distances and rougher terrain than in urban settings, and smaller in diameter in recognition of the likelihood of scarce water, Mr. Pelk said.

Also lighter in weight and bright yellow are the firefighters' outfits, a color that could protect them by being seen from aircraft dropping water on a fire.

"Water's like 8-1/4 pounds per gallon, so when you have 500 gallons dropped on you, it can hurt," Firefighter/paramedic Ernesto Marin of the Redwood City Fire Department told the Almanac.

Evacuating horses

Fifty horses board at the Spring Down Equestrian Center just south of the Town Center and just west of the town's open space.

Firefighters said they contacted Spring Down personnel to ask about their plan for evacuation of the animals and were told they could transport about 10 at a time.

Spring Down owner Carol Goodstein said in an interview that she has six acres into which the horses could be released in an emergency, but that she would like to have the town's six-acre open space fenced so the horses could be released there as well, but only in an emergency.

After at least two attempts at collaboration with the town, the fencing idea has fizzled, she said.

Asked to comment, Public Works Director Howard Young responded via email. "I can tell you that we had follow-up discussions with Mr. Stan Goodstein in January and he decided not to pursue an emergency horse corral fence any further," Mr. Young wrote.

Getting horses into the claustrophobic environment of a trailer would be difficult at best in an emergency situation, Ms. Goodstein said. In any case, the roads may be impassable. Owners of the farm next door have offered their fields, but they are open to the road and Spring Down would be liable for any damage to the orchards there, she said.

"We don't have any other contingency plan," Ms. Goodstein said. "We would like to."

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