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Guest opinion: 'A very dangerous place for fire' in Portola Valley

A rendering of Stanford's proposed housing development on Alpine Road in Portola Valley. Courtesy Stanford University.

Stanford University is proposing to build 27 homes and three multifamily apartment buildings in Portola Valley at the mouth of a steep ravine along Alpine Road near Westridge Drive, both major evacuation routes.

As Woodside Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Don Bullard told The Almanac in February 2020: "The fire (district) doesn't think that (Stanford's proposed housing project) is the best location to be putting in high-density housing because of the high fire severity zone. It is a very dangerous place for fire. We should look for other areas for development that would be better, and we've suggested the town do that."

The 400-foot hillsides surrounding Stanford's property create a chimney-like effect that can intensify and uplift any fire, accelerating the spread of burning embers and flames in multiple directions simultaneously.

While Stanford proposes to reduce some vegetation, such measures alone will not abate the project's hazards. As former Woodside Fire Marshal Denise Enea wrote in September 2019: "Even with regular fuel reduction attempts, the physical vegetative nature and steep topographical properties of the large remaining undeveloped portion of the parcel, place a significant increased risk of rapid acceleration and increased intensity of any ignition in the natural landscape."

Incredibly, while Stanford promises to reduce vegetative fuels, it is simultaneously seeking to add far more man-made fuels than our ordinances allow.

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The man-made fuels comprising new housing pose grave hazards. As one fire expert recently remarked, "houses are 'fuel bombs' that release exponentially more intense thermal energy over a much longer duration than vegetative wildfires." In many recent wildfires, the destruction caused by radiant heat from house-to-house ignitions far exceeded the destruction wrought by vegetative fires.

Our subdivision and zoning ordinances were carefully written to reduce such hazards. By ensuring that the square footage of housing is properly scaled to the parcels on which they are built, and that houses are well-separated from each other and situated on geologically stable soils, our ordinances serve to reduce the intensity and curtail the spread of fire.

The fire marshal has called for 100 feet of separation between Stanford's proposed houses. Our ordinances impose minimum parcel sizes, setbacks and maximum square footage allowances that result in just such separation. Stanford is asking the town to waive these important safety restrictions so it can reduce its costs by building much larger homes on much smaller parcels with far less separation between structures.

Stanford's proposed parcels are 80% smaller than the minimum parcel size our ordinances require. Its 27 houses would each have 60% more square footage/parcel than our ordinances allow. Combined, this would not only shrink the defensible space around each structure, but also increase the amount of man-made fuels added to each parcel.

Many fire experts consider building square footage a good proxy for estimating the amount of man-made fuels a building will add. By this measure, Stanford would add 270% more man-made fuels/acre of occupied land than our ordinances allow.

Further, Stanford proposes to ignore our municipal code's minimum requirements for road easement, pedestrian and bicycle paths, and parking spaces. Worse still, the project straddles a geologic fault whose seismic activity has not been investigated and is situated on alluvial soils subject to liquefaction and ground shaking.

Town residents deserve answers.

In this "very dangerous place for fire," will the reduction in parcel size and increase in man-made fuels and housing density increase fire hazards?

What lives, residences and essential infrastructure are in jeopardy if fire spreads from Stanford's site?

The lives, safety and homes of hundreds of neighbors may depend on the answers.

(Editor's note: The town's Architectural & Site Control Commission is holding a virtual study session on the project Monday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. For more information, including how to participate, visit tinyurl.com/stanfordwedge.)

Rusty Day is a Portola Valley resident.

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Guest opinion: 'A very dangerous place for fire' in Portola Valley

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Mon, Jan 25, 2021, 11:42 am

Stanford University is proposing to build 27 homes and three multifamily apartment buildings in Portola Valley at the mouth of a steep ravine along Alpine Road near Westridge Drive, both major evacuation routes.

As Woodside Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Don Bullard told The Almanac in February 2020: "The fire (district) doesn't think that (Stanford's proposed housing project) is the best location to be putting in high-density housing because of the high fire severity zone. It is a very dangerous place for fire. We should look for other areas for development that would be better, and we've suggested the town do that."

The 400-foot hillsides surrounding Stanford's property create a chimney-like effect that can intensify and uplift any fire, accelerating the spread of burning embers and flames in multiple directions simultaneously.

While Stanford proposes to reduce some vegetation, such measures alone will not abate the project's hazards. As former Woodside Fire Marshal Denise Enea wrote in September 2019: "Even with regular fuel reduction attempts, the physical vegetative nature and steep topographical properties of the large remaining undeveloped portion of the parcel, place a significant increased risk of rapid acceleration and increased intensity of any ignition in the natural landscape."

Incredibly, while Stanford promises to reduce vegetative fuels, it is simultaneously seeking to add far more man-made fuels than our ordinances allow.

The man-made fuels comprising new housing pose grave hazards. As one fire expert recently remarked, "houses are 'fuel bombs' that release exponentially more intense thermal energy over a much longer duration than vegetative wildfires." In many recent wildfires, the destruction caused by radiant heat from house-to-house ignitions far exceeded the destruction wrought by vegetative fires.

Our subdivision and zoning ordinances were carefully written to reduce such hazards. By ensuring that the square footage of housing is properly scaled to the parcels on which they are built, and that houses are well-separated from each other and situated on geologically stable soils, our ordinances serve to reduce the intensity and curtail the spread of fire.

The fire marshal has called for 100 feet of separation between Stanford's proposed houses. Our ordinances impose minimum parcel sizes, setbacks and maximum square footage allowances that result in just such separation. Stanford is asking the town to waive these important safety restrictions so it can reduce its costs by building much larger homes on much smaller parcels with far less separation between structures.

Stanford's proposed parcels are 80% smaller than the minimum parcel size our ordinances require. Its 27 houses would each have 60% more square footage/parcel than our ordinances allow. Combined, this would not only shrink the defensible space around each structure, but also increase the amount of man-made fuels added to each parcel.

Many fire experts consider building square footage a good proxy for estimating the amount of man-made fuels a building will add. By this measure, Stanford would add 270% more man-made fuels/acre of occupied land than our ordinances allow.

Further, Stanford proposes to ignore our municipal code's minimum requirements for road easement, pedestrian and bicycle paths, and parking spaces. Worse still, the project straddles a geologic fault whose seismic activity has not been investigated and is situated on alluvial soils subject to liquefaction and ground shaking.

Town residents deserve answers.

In this "very dangerous place for fire," will the reduction in parcel size and increase in man-made fuels and housing density increase fire hazards?

What lives, residences and essential infrastructure are in jeopardy if fire spreads from Stanford's site?

The lives, safety and homes of hundreds of neighbors may depend on the answers.

(Editor's note: The town's Architectural & Site Control Commission is holding a virtual study session on the project Monday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. For more information, including how to participate, visit tinyurl.com/stanfordwedge.)

Rusty Day is a Portola Valley resident.

The Almanac accepts guest opinions of up to 600 words and letters to the editor of up to 300 words. Send signed op-eds and letters to [email protected] by 5 p.m. Monday and noon on Tuesday, respectively. No form letters, please.

Comments

David B
Registered user
Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 25, 2021 at 12:47 pm
David B, Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
Registered user
on Jan 25, 2021 at 12:47 pm

.... And so it begins: the sophisticated, professional campaign to find every possible reason to not allow people to live in PV who can't afford 3 acres in Westridge. Rusty wrote about fire this week, someone else will write about each of the issues that he started to beat the drum about.
And if it doesn't go their way, then come the lawsuits.

All this from people whose house is on land that was once rural pasture, and whose cars create traffic on our roads. Rusty, my life and residence is at risk of a fire spreading from your house... "I demand answers!"

I trust our town officials to follow the law and building codes and ensure that this development, if approved, will be safe, well-built, and painted the correct neutral colors. But fundamentally, I accept that the world changes, and we can't pull the drawbridge up around us.


CyberVoter
Registered user
Atherton: other
on Jan 25, 2021 at 1:20 pm
CyberVoter, Atherton: other
Registered user
on Jan 25, 2021 at 1:20 pm

Rusty:
Thanks for a very clear & articulate summary and argument. I am shocked (but not surprised) that Stanford would have the arrogance and hubris to make an application that is so inappropriate. On one hand Stanford is a leader in alerting us to the perils of overbuilding near dangerous spaces in this era of Climate Change. Yet, clearly their rules do not apply to them (when inconvenient). If this were "Ryan Homes" making the application, they would be "laughed out of Portola Valley".

Please do the same with Stanford!


PVisBeautiful
Registered user
Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 25, 2021 at 5:04 pm
PVisBeautiful, Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
Registered user
on Jan 25, 2021 at 5:04 pm

@David B, are you on Stanford's payroll? How anyone can roll their eyes at wildfire risk after our last few fire seasons (which climate change will continue to exacerbate) is beyond me!


neenee
Registered user
Portola Valley: Westridge
on Jan 26, 2021 at 12:29 pm
neenee, Portola Valley: Westridge
Registered user
on Jan 26, 2021 at 12:29 pm

Let’s face it. All of Portola Valley is at risk of a major fire. It is very dense with vegetation. It seems to me it’s an effort to keep other people out.


Bigmon78
Registered user
Portola Valley: Westridge
on Jan 26, 2021 at 12:51 pm
Bigmon78, Portola Valley: Westridge
Registered user
on Jan 26, 2021 at 12:51 pm

This location clearly is not appropriate for high density housing from a fire and traffic perspectives (next to a blind curve leading into the Westridge Dr. intersection). High density housing does not conform with the character and historical tradition of Portola Valley into which we have invested.

Also, no one will answer the question, "Why is it not appropriate for Stanford to build housing on their campus of hundreds of clear acres?"


Meg
Registered user
Portola Valley: other
on Jan 26, 2021 at 11:04 pm
Meg, Portola Valley: other
Registered user
on Jan 26, 2021 at 11:04 pm

The proposed housing is Company Housing that will not be owned by the Stanford employees. This is a terrible situation in that the employees are reliant on Stanford employment for both a salary and housing. If the employee wants to change jobs they lose housing. If their job ends they lose housing. Stanford should pay enough for employees to buy a house and secure their future. We don't need more usurious Stanford housing on the peninsula


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