Grand jury says entire county at risk of wildfire


A San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report released on July 9 warns residents of urban areas not to be complacent about wildfires since high winds can drive swarms of embers long distances and ignite vulnerable structures.

The report citing the threat to city residents comes as towns in the so-called urban/wildland interface, such as Portola Valley and Woodside, are trying desperately to find ways to prevent fires as well as prepare an effective response if they do occur.

The Grand Jury identified about 35 percent of land in the county as a place where a wildfire could start. But, there is no guarantee that the flames won't move on from there to more populated urban areas, the report said.

"High winds moving through gaps in the coastal range could expand the perimeter of a fire quickly, making it a countywide threat to lives and property," the report said.

While fire suppression activities confine most fires to two acres or less, certain wind conditions could render a fire in a rural area unmanageable and cause it to spread rapidly across a much larger area, according to the report.

The Crystal Springs reservoirs, San Andreas Lake and Interstate 280 could act as a firebreak and "slow the eastward progress of a fire towards San Francisco Bay."

However, the report noted, wind-driven fires have produced embers that have jumped rivers and reservoirs in the past.

Jonathan Cox, division chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit, told The Almanac that he agrees with the report's conclusions and pointed to the Coffey Fire in Santa Rosa in 2017 that destroyed more than 5,000 structures in an urban residential area as an example.

"Any of these fires that are burning under high-wind conditions can throw embers miles ahead of themselves," Cox said. "If that hits a wood shake roof or a wood deck it can have an effect the same way as a structure in the wildland would."

One large fire can trigger dozens of small fires miles away, Cox said.

The report also called for educating the public countywide about evacuation routes, noting that "all emergency notification systems can be compromised during a conflagration, which makes advanced public knowledge of alternative evacuation routes crucial for public safety."

That information could be included as an enclosure that could be published by local fire agencies and sent to homeowners with their property tax or utility bills, the report suggested.

So far, four communities in the county, including Portola Valley, Woodside, La Honda, and Palomar Park, containing less than 2% of the county's population, publish information sheets about escape routes.

Jeff Norris, coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services, cautioned that residents need to have several ways to escape in mind and should get information about the direction the fire is moving so they can to decide the best way to evacuate.

Norris recommended that residents subscribe to San Mateo County Alert, a reverse 911 system that sends a text, email or voice mail message that gives early warning information about fires, road closures, hazardous materials releases and other incidents.

San Mateo County Alert has 100,000 subscribers out of a total county population of 760,000, he said.

Norris agrees with the Grand Jury's opinion that emergency alert systems aren't foolproof, saying that the need for flexibility is the only constant.

"If you think you're in danger, don't wait pack up and move to a different area," he said in an interview with The Almanac.

The county has a mutual aid arrangement between fire protection agencies that enables them to pool their resources; however, multiple fires could strain their ability to respond, according to the report.

To counter the problem, the Grand Jury recommended obtaining funds from the California Office of Emergency Services to place fire engines in high-risk wildfire areas areas during periods of high fire danger.

"Cal Fire can move resources in anticipation of fire danger," Cox said. "It can staff additional equipment and bring in additional resources."

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2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Jul 15, 2019 at 12:32 pm

The report does not mention the possibility of a west to east wind causing a leap across 280 to residential areas is quite unlikely. Onshore winds are mostly cold and foggy. Most likely, an off shore wind blowing from the East Bay will blow hot dry air over the area increasing the chances of an urban conflagration.

Like this comment
Posted by the Santa Anas
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Jul 15, 2019 at 12:40 pm


I agree completely. Not to belittle the very real dangers of fires from the west, any one who's been around here knows all the big fires occur when natural wind direction shifts, in the style referred to as "the Santa Anas" in our Southland.

All the conflagrations in the north over the last few years have been driven by inland winds.

Odd that the grand jury didn't note that, or if they did, it went unreported.

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Posted by awatkins
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jul 15, 2019 at 1:23 pm

The report itself can be found at Web Link

(Good journalistic practice includes giving the reader the ability to access source material. Hint, hint.)

Surprise, surprise, there is only one short paragraph about PREVENTION including one glaring falsehood, namely
“...public funds may only be used to fund projects on public lands.”. Excuse me, but the town of Woodside reimburses homeowners for money spent on defensible space projects. The rest of the paragraph really only records that some public agencies do some, but has no comment on whether they are adequate.

So, no recommendations about reducing fuel load or even improving evacuation routes. It’s all about passively accepting wildfires, and focusing on dealing with the aftermath. Even PG&E knows better than that.

Grand Jury: how about finishing the job by evaluating prevention and mitigation activities?

2 people like this
Posted by JD
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Jul 15, 2019 at 1:25 pm

We needed a Grand Jury to tell us this? Are we going to convene a Grand Jury next cold and flu season to tell us to wash our hands frequently and get the flu shot?

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Posted by awatkins
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jul 15, 2019 at 1:39 pm

The Woodside “Evacuation Plan” is hard to find but it’s located here: Web Link.

It’s really an emergency management plan intended for public agents, and appears to be a work in progress.

However, starting almost exactly half way through at the 31st page is a series of evacuation route maps.

2 people like this
Posted by awatkins
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jul 15, 2019 at 1:42 pm

JD —

No, because those recommendations would help PREVENT cold or flu. An analogous Grand Jury report on cold and flu would list places to buy kleenex.

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Posted by GM
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jul 17, 2019 at 9:16 am

Winds coming from the west are often accompanied by a moist marine layer. The idea that a wind whipped fire will move from the west towards the bay, jumping 280 defies the actual conditions on the ground during these coastal fog events. Woodside is 10 miles east from the Pacific Ocean, Santa Rosa is 22.5 miles east of the Pacific. Yes, climate change has and will continue to create extreme fire behavior. Unfortunately comparing Woodside to the conditions during the Coffee fire, where diablo winds blowing from the northeast brought humidity in the single digits is not the scenario described in the article. The Almanac might as well say Livermore, which sits 22.5 miles from the San Francisco bay, shares similar weather conditions with Woodside.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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