Had there been a real wildfire along Old La Honda Road in Woodside on Saturday morning, May 16, firefighters might have encountered scared residents hurrying along on foot and carrying boxes of possessions. Five times more people would have been evacuating, and in an atmosphere tinged by panic and chaos, said firefighters of the Woodside Fire Protection District.
But it was an exercise. Firefighters from throughout the county converged on Old La Honda Road, staging their trucks for action, laying out hoses, filling them, emptying them and rolling them up again. And residents evacuated, by car.
At the Portola Valley Town Center following the fourth annual community fire drill, Fire Chief Dan Ghiorso had an acronym for 40 residents gathered for a debriefing, advice and a pot-luck lunch: "PLEASE," Chief Ghiorso said, as in, "Please Leave Early And Save Everyone."
Sign up for emergency alerts by phone and email, Chief Ghiorso said. Plan your response to a wildfire alert and don't evacuate on foot. That is the way to get killed, he said.
The Woodside district encompasses Portola Valley, Woodside and nearby communities. Like other residents in his neighborhood, Hans Luemers received an automated phone call around 9:15 a.m. Saturday announcing a spreading wildfire lower down on Old La Honda Road.
At 9:30 came a call ordering residents to evacuate within 10 to 15 minutes via Skyline Boulevard. "It was well organized," Mr. Luemers said.
"Everything was so well planned," said resident Pauline Jacobus. "It was very positive." She learned about the drill through her homeowners association, she said.
Resident Cutty Smith said she heard about it through an online forum and spent two weeks preparing, including planning what to put in a box if she had five minutes to leave, or 15 minutes or 30 minutes. "It was a good mental exercise," she said.
Chief Ghiorso congratulated the residents on responding to the evacuation challenge.
One way to fight a wildfire is to make it difficult for it to spread.
At a residence, this is done by creating defensible space -- a zone around a house in which fuel sources have been appropriately trimmed or removed. In forested areas, removing the understory of brush is critical.
The town of Woodside promotes defensible space with a fund that matches up to $2,000 of a homeowner's expenses.
For its part, the fire district has its annual wood chipper program. Crews visit neighborhoods in the district and convert residents' excess brush and branches into wood chips.
The brush-clearing is vital to defending against wildfire, the chief said. Once a fire climbs the ladder of brush into foliage, "it becomes a faster, hotter more dangerous fire," and it's time to call in the helicopters and re-engage when the fire is not as dangerous, he said.
The Woodside district's Inspector/Firefighter Don Bullard has specialized training in how to make a home more resistant to ignition from wildfire, said Fire Marshal Denise Enea. At the debriefing, Mr. Bullard offered to visit homes and check out vulnerabilities such as roofs and crevices where burning embers could start fires.
Town Hall transformed
For a Saturday morning, Town Hall in Woodside buzzed with unusual intensity. Every staff member but one was present for the fire drill, said Town Manager Kevin Bryant.
Along with communicating with their counterparts in Portola Valley Town Hall for the May 16 drill, the staff had additional situations to deal with, including a theoretical rock slide at Highway 84 and Portola Road, and a theoretical fallen tree on Mountain Home Road near Manzanita Road.
Staff and firefighters verbally play-acted what would be done had such events been real. The room was alive with conversation and expressions of serious mien.
"The whole point is that this (drill) is an opportunity to participate and spice it up," Mr. Bryant said. "People lock into it pretty quickly," he said, looking around.