Woodside, Portola Valley in the same fire-risk league as Paradise


Imagine a day with temperatures in the 90s and gale-force winds blowing in the San Mateo County hills.

Then imagine that someone or something ignites a fire, perhaps a sparking power line or an unattended campfire.

According to a survey of small towns in 11 Western states, such a scenario could trigger a disaster similar to the Camp Fire in Northern California last November that killed 85 people, burned 19,000 structures and destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County.

The survey, undertaken by USA Today and the Arizona Republic before the Camp Fire and published in July, gave Woodside a rating on a one-to-five scale of 3.39 and Portola Valley a 3.63 rating for fire vulnerability the potential for death and destruction from a wildfire compared with 3.89 for the town of Paradise. (Towns closest to five on the scale are considered to have the highest vulnerability.)

The median wildfire risk in the study was 2.08 for more than 5,000 communities that were surveyed.

Portola Valley was also rated on a one-to-five scale at 3.09 and Woodside at 1.24 in a category called evacuation constraint, meaning the degree of difficulty in escaping a fire, compared with a median of 1.10 nationwide. Residents of towns with a rating closest to five have the greatest risk of being trapped.

The median age of residents, the number of residents with disabilities that would make it difficult to flee a fire, and the number of mobile homes that could catch fire easily were also factors in assessing the level of fire risk in the survey.

Jonathan Cox, the San Mateo County division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), said he thinks the report could accurately reflect the degree of danger should a wildfire strike.

"Other parts of the state are as much or even more vulnerable than Paradise," said Cox, who was on the CalFire team at the Camp Fire. "The hillside areas on the Bay side of the county are highly vulnerable."

Red-flag warning days during hot weather with high winds occur much less often in San Mateo County compared with inland areas of the state, but if a deadly fire got started, the county's semi-rural communities could face some of the same vulnerabilities, Cox said.

"Early fires in forested areas at the turn of the century caused the founding of the county fire department," said Cox. "If a fire started in Woodside, it could burn up to the top of the ridge before it turned east toward the Bay."

Climate change is also making it more likely that the county could have a destructive wildfire. As temperatures rise, the cooling breezes that moderate periods of high temperatures are likely to taper off, making for more days when a fire could get started and spread out of control, Cox said.

The county has more firefighters and firefighting equipment in a smaller area than rural counties in the state, but that advantage could be lost if a fire wasn't contained in time and spread out of control during a period of hot weather and high winds, he said.

Under the most hazardous conditions, such as during the Camp Fire, wildfires can spread at the rate of 1 acre per second, making them virtually impossible to stop after they break out, he noted.

"If a fire burns in normal conditions, we are resource-rich in San Mateo County to combat it," Cox said. "If it burns in abnormal conditions, that's where we are the most concerned."

The county and local towns and cities can take a number of measures in advance of need, including hiring more firefighters and closing parks and outdoor areas during critical fire weather to combat the threat, Cox said.

Local agencies are working to respond to the challenge, according to Woodside Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Denise Enea, who is one of the officials charged with leading the local push toward fire prevention and ensuring the safe evacuation of residents if necessary.

Fire districts and departments are starting to use computerized tools to look at the number of homes in an area and determine how much traffic streets could handle if residents were trying to access them all at once in an effort to escape, Enea said.

"We have a special situation in the hills where some of our roadways are only one way and, if two cars meet, you come to a standstill," she said.

Officials are promoting evacuation drills so that neighborhoods can practice in advance of the real thing, Enea said.

The fire district is also developing online interactive maps that people could access during an emergency to find where fire hydrants, generators and emergency supplies are located, she said.

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Like this comment
Posted by awatkins
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Sep 19, 2019 at 1:02 pm

The original article is well-written and instructive and far more useful than this little alarm.

Web Link

I wish Almanac would publish links to background articles. Is there a reason why you don’t?

2 people like this
Posted by awatkins
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Sep 19, 2019 at 1:21 pm

The AZCentral article linked above above has, about 2/3 of the way into the article, the ability to look up any town's data.

In your browser, search for "risk factor data".

For PV and Woodside the actionable item of most concern is that neither town has, as of July 2019, an emergency alert system.

4 people like this
Posted by RickMoen
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Sep 19, 2019 at 1:48 pm

Paradise, CA suffered a truly catastrophic combination of risks that cannot possibly be matched in the Bay Area's Santa Cruz Mountains foothills. To see how unique its threats were, see the eye-opening LA Times piece 'Here’s how Paradise ignored warnings and became a deathtrap', Web Link . For starters, Paradise's location just downhill from a low saddle in the Sierra Nevada (Jarbo Gap, where CA Route 70 crosses) put it in harm's way of gale-force dry canyon winds blowing through the gap, in a place radically drier than our area's short distance from the coast and the Bay. The culpable obliviousness of town authorities, for years, to well-known evacuation and notification problems, and making those problems worse by deliberately narrowing the main road out of town (even though experts warned them this could cause mass fire deaths), set the town up for catastrophe.

How bad was the known risk just from canyon winds? Quoting the article: 'Meteorological records show 36 days since 2003 with gusts of 100 mph or more, and as high as 200 mph. Paradise sat in the path.'

Although they have significant problems (particularly Portola Valley's evacuation chokepoints), Woodside and Portola Valley are not even remotely in the same category. In that particular, reporter Rick Radin says: 'Imagine [...] gale-force winds blowing in the San Mateo County hills.' Sure, Mr. Radin, we can imagine lots of things, but tell us: When and why have we ever had gale-force winds blowing in the San Mateo County hills? We have nothing even remotely like the Jarbo Gap topological situation. The Santa Cruz Mountains slope down gradually towards San Francisco with a small dip at CA-92, and the only thing that blows through that is coast-side fog, and never at gale force.

Also, as a general observation, with due respect to the work of the Arizona Republic and USA Today reporters, I'd have greater confidence in the claims of primary authorities such as, say, CalFire. (I note with approval that CalFire was consulted for The Almanac's version of this story, though.)

Rick Moen

2 people like this
Posted by awatkins
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Sep 21, 2019 at 6:38 pm

Rick --

You said "I'd have greater confidence in the claims of primary authorities such as, say, CalFire."

CalFire published this report Web Link a few months ago in which Appendix C identifies the Kings Mountain area of Woodside as the second highest priority fuel reduction project in California. As both CalFire and the Arizona Republic article make clear, there is a lot more to evaluating fire risk than wind and topography.

Yes, Radin's sentence about gale force winds is, like the rest of his article, pointlessly alarmist, but what do you expect from the Almanac?

But CalFire wouldn't have put Woodside at the top of its list of 35 areas needing immediate fuel reduction if they didn't think the area was at serious risk.

Comparing one already burned high-risk area to one that has not yest burned and debating which was/is at greater risk is a pointless academic exercise. What matters is what our governments (state, county, city) do about ALL of the high risk fire areas that are threatening our homes. PV and Woodside are areas of extremely high risk and that's all that matters.

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