The Woodside Fire Protection District is weighing in on fire hazards it believes could be associated with a proposed Stanford University housing project in Portola Valley.
The project, which calls for 27 single-family homes and an additional 12 units of affordable housing, is proposed for a 6-acre site on the southeast corner of a 75-acre property that Stanford owns along Alpine Road near the intersection with Westridge Drive.
According to a Sept. 1 letter from then-Woodside Fire Marshal Denise Enea to the Portola Valley Planning Department, the property around the land that will be developed would be consistently difficult to clear of fire hazards that could imperil the development.
Enea retired at the end of December and was replaced by former Deputy Fire Marshal Don Bullard.
The property contains "steep and vertical canyons" that are "too steep for mechanical fuel treatments, and goat grazing has not reduced the amount of live or dead woody material," Enea wrote.
In addition, "the density configuration enables mature and immature trees which is conducive to a more rapid spread of fire within within the tree canopy," she wrote.
These characteristics pose a risk to homes on ridges above the property, including Westridge Drive and Minoca Road, and well as on the development site itself.
"Small housing clusters historically fare the worst in the wildland-urban interface," according to a 2008 article Enea quoted from the Real Estate Review, a journal dedicated to the development community.
Bullard led a community meeting on Jan. 28 at a private residence with a group called Portola Valley Neighbors United to discuss the fire district's concerns.
"The fire (district) doesn't think that is the best location to be putting in high-density housing because of the high fire severity zone," Bullard said in a phone interview. "It's a very dangerous place for fire. We should look for other areas for development that would be better, and we've suggested that the town do that."
There are significant risks to developing the site for the residents in the subdivision and for those in the homes above, since "fire travels uphill much like water travels downhill," Bullard said.
The uphill fire danger is greater if you have utilities, electricity and motor vehicles downslope, with much more activity and people living there, he said.
"The fire potential goes way up with that factor," Bullard said. "It also creates an evacuation problem in a fire with more people and more traffic and small, narrow, winding roads with a lot of people trying to get out in a hurry."
Although it has no direct control over the terms of the development, if the project is approved, the district is recommending a comprehensive vegetation management plan that would require strict defensible space around structures, native-plant-only vegetation and an agreement on how many acres would be cleared of brush and debris in the larger property every year.