Palo Alto Weekly
- June 27, 2014
Keeping fire at bay
Palo Alto-based FireSafe Council aims to prevent Oakland Hills-type fire
by Sue Dremann
Under slightly different conditions, a wildland fire in the Palo Alto hills earlier this month could have spread to homes and perhaps taken lives, fire officials said at the scene. It has happened before.
A devastating wildfire on July 1, 1985, destroyed 11 homes. Since then, firefighters have kept small a series of blazes caused by arson, accident or nature. But the constant challenge in the brush-covered hills is that fuel for a potential runaway fire continues to grow.
Now, a new fire-prevention council spearheaded by Mark Nadim, Palo Alto Hills Neighborhood Association president, is working to help residents clear the land around their homes of combustible materials and reduce the dangers in foothills residents' picturesque surroundings.
The Midpeninsula FireSafe Council is part of an agreement between the City of Palo Alto and the Santa Clara County FireSafe Council, funded by grants from municipalities, Pacific Gas & Electric, individuals and large companies.
The councils were initiated by Cal Fire to reduce fire hazards through education and with citizens' help. In February, the Midpeninsula FireSafe Council and the city began their first brush-removal project along the south side of Arastradero Road. Thirteen other projects have been completed, from cutting back or removing plants to clearing what's known as "defensible space" — a buffer and a firefighting zone — around water tanks, pump stations and Fire Station 8 in Foothills Park.
Eight more projects are underway, according to the group's Web page.
The Midpeninsula council has just three members right now, but Nadim said he hopes more people will join.
"When a fire starts, you don't know when it's going to end. People need to realize the dangers. Especially in this year with drought, one really has to pay attention," said Nadim, who moved to Palo Alto Hills in 1986, one year after the July 1, 1985, wildfire.
He has been involved in emergency preparedness, with a particular interest in fire safety, for years and ran for Palo Alto City Council in 2007.
Since the major fire in 1985, most of the old-timers have moved out. Many new people who have moved in are not aware of the fire hazard in the area.
"Everybody talks about earthquakes and pandemics, but they don't talk about wildfires," Nadim said.
But Palo Alto Hills and residences nestled between Arastradero Road, the Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club, and the northern end of Foothills Park are in the danger zones outlined in Palo Alto's Foothills Fire Management Plan. Dry vegetation could create "fire tunnels," in which roads, including stretches of Page Mill Road, are completely blocked, plan consultants noted. A fire-danger map developed showed flames could rise up to 20 feet high and sweep toward some homes at up to 4 miles per hour.
Although the brush fire earlier this month, caused by a car crash, only burned 1.5 acres, the damage could have been far greater, firefighters said. The wind wasn't blowing that day, and staff from an open-space preserve came upon the scene early.
Eight fire engines from three agencies, a helicopter dumping water and a plane dumping fire retardant doused the blaze before it could get out of control.
Nadim is looking to collaborate with residents in surrounding neighborhoods. He recently reached out to Esther Clark Park neighborhood and along upper Page Mill Road, and he wants to work with other FireSafe councils in the Skyline area and Woodside, he said.
Fire knows no boundaries, he said.
An ongoing concern is that many residents don't how to protect their properties. One man said he tried to mow the weeds on his property, but the area is not flat and he was not successful, Nadim recalled.
"Part of the education is what to do with the weeds and how to create a defensible space," he said.
The council is teaching residents about appropriate tools for uneven-terrain weed reduction, such as using a weed whacker, and how to find businesses willing to work in poison oak areas, he said.
Much of his time is spent just going property by property to build relationships.
"To get the community to know what you are doing is the hardest part," he said.
Email lists don't do the job unless one knows the person. People ask questions, but they don't get involved, he said.
So Nadim is relying on old-fashioned shoe leather. He doesn't want a devastating fire to be the common experience that binds people together.
Those interested in the Midpeninsula FireSafe Council can call Mark Nadim at 650-740-0150 or visit sccfiresafe.org/communities/midpeninsula.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Safety should be first,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 29, 2014 at 2:48 pm
It can be difficult to carry on a discussion online, because it's impossible to see people. So I also appreciate a good discussion without any emotion being read into it, thanks.
The Oakland Firestorm was one of the most examined disasters in our nation's history. You can search engine for official reports to easily find things like, "The efforts of mutual aid companies were complicated however by the lack of compatibility of their hose connections with Oakland's hydrant system." (The fire itself happened before there was really broad use of the internet, though, or even wide use of a graphical interface, still there is no lack of resources to read. There was a lot of news coverage of the final report, you might try searching the archives of the Oakland Tribune or SF newspapers if you are interested.)
When big disasters happen, it's because of a cascade of things that go wrong, and counting on handing out hose adaptors was unfortunately, asking for it. Oakland had never had such a major event in modern history, either, only smaller ones in the hills -- just like we have had here in Palo Alto. Then a more major disaster burned both hills and into the flats.
In Berkeley after that big earthquake they had in the 19th century, the city burned way into the flats. I read that students saved the university by throwing water-soaked wool blankets over fences.
You wrote "One immediate response is that in the hundred and twenty years of Palo Alto's existencethere have been no fires that have consumed whole neighborhoods, "
Waiting until you can point to major disaster history or loss of life before acting is the antithesis of sound safety planning. Palo Alto isn't exactly the same today as it was 120 years ago or even 10 years ago. That's not really a sound approach to safety planning. The conditions today are much more populated and dense, which relates to things like evacuation and potential for starting and spreading a fire, emergency access, etc., and there is a lot more gas lines, etc.
The probabilities relate to the conditions, which are what safety planning addresses, not whether the same disaster has happened before. We know what can happen in homes of such dense urban areas after an earthquake. Fire is usually the major threat, not the earthquake itself, particularly with single-story wooden homes. If you look at historical data relative to the conditions, you include other communities in California or even Australia. The fact that our town has not experienced what is actually an eminently possible scenario, given a look a the rest of similar cities/construction, is not an argument against sound safety planning, nor does it even speak to whether the probabilities are slight. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Tokyo in the early part of the 20th century was flat, too. And, they could easily have said before their major quake that they hadn't had a fire that spread and killed over 100,000 people within the past 120 years, either.
I would note, relative to school seismic planning in Caifornia, I don't think there has been any loss of life in California schools in all the earthquake events we've had in the last 120 years, either. If you believe FEMA's evaluation, though, it's because luckily all the most serious events occurred during hours when children weren't present, not because we had such great safety codes. FEMA points out that had the biggest earthquakes happened at other times, there would have been significant loss of life given the damage we know happened to schools.
My message above was that people in the flats should not be complacent and that there are risks in the flats, and if anything, people are more at risk because they seem to be unaware of them. Drive through much of Barron Park and see how overgrown it is
My other message is that our City needs to start putting safety first. That it's not is a much longer discussion, but I do want to make the point that having a separate Safety Element in the new revision of the Comp Plan will go a long way toward focusing our civic duties on safety.
Before we talk about whether we have the money or not for safety, first safety has to be properly planned, with good information. Many cities in California have already had this conversation, which is why so many of them actually mandate automatic seismic shutoffs for gas lines. Individual home sprinkler systems are incredibly expensive, cause incredible damage if they malfunction (which is a real risk), and are of little use and may even compromise civic water pressure from leaks after a major seismic event when they are likely to be impacted negatively.
There's no great mystery around upgrading foundations so the houses survive a quake. After Northridge quake, there was a lot of investigation about what helped homes survive that kind of event. We are not so dissimilar. Our home construction is very similar, and there are upgrades people can make for less than the cost of a few years' insurance that will all but ensure their homes survive intact after a major quake.
There is also no great mystery about the importance of cutting back vegetation, particularly in such a drought, even in the flats. I hope you will continue to look into it, but recognize the common sense of clearing out defensible space everywhere in town, especially in neighborhoods adjacent to the hills, not just the hills. In the event of a major event in high fire danger areas, cinders and ash can travel quite far.
And to the point that there is only so much money to go around -- our first responsibility for spending civic money is on safety.
Posted by Safety should come first,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 12:44 pm
"When big disasters happen, it's because of a
> cascade of things that go wrong"
Sorry, I meant to qualify that by mentioning the man-made component. Disasters with a man-made component or potential prevention end up big usually because of a cascade of problems. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was not in itself so destructive of New Orleans, there were a whole host of man-made contributors to the disaster that resulted in the flooding and the far worse damage. In 9/11, the City had its main emergency control in the towers. In the 2nd tower, people were told to go back to work, despite the situation with more than one hijacked plane aloft and what had just happened to the 1st tower. You might say that they couldn't have predicted such an act, but someone had already tried to take down the towers with an act of terrorism by bombing the basement. I visited the towers just a few years before 9/11, and the the question of whether there was preparedness in case of air attack or accident after the basement bombing was actually a topic of discussion with my spouse. It's not a stretch. (We concluded by guessing that for sure the professionals in the City would be thinking of those things. We guessed wrong.) When you think safety, you don't just think probabilities, you think of consequences irrespective of probabilities, and if there is a possibility and the consequence is unacceptable, how to prevent the consequences especially if prevention is fairly low-cost. Often, it just takes planning. The melt-down at Fukushima is another example. It's in these types of "man-made" or technological disasters that usually a cascade of things go wrong. The Titanic is another good example. People reason in advance that probably it won't happen.
I read about the cascade of things that go wrong in one of the many post-disaster analyses I've combed through, including (as an affected person) the Oakland disaster.
You are obviously a smart person, I want you to consider that just because you can reason through something, doesn't make it right. When it comes to safety, there are two important maxims: Safety First, and Err on the Side of Safety.
The latter means, when you don't have all the information, if you're going to make a mistake, you make the mistake on the side of safety. If you and I don't have all the information and are guessing, as we are both doing here, err on the side of safety. We humans love to stick our heads in the sand when it comes to safety, and that includes me and you. Even when you say "not sure that's true" you keep erring on the other side.
> Palo Alto isn't exactly the same today as it was 120 years ago
Ok. But your point was based on whether Palo Alto has had a major disaster in the last 120 years. That's a non sequitur anyway, but much of modern Palo Alto was built in just the last several decades.
> even 10 years ago.
Have to disagree here. The population is barely 5,000 increased, and there have been very few homes built, or buildings of any substantial height built, for that matter.
My observation from living here a few decades is that the traffic has gone nuts in the last 2-3 years. You aren't accounting for cumulative impacts or limitations of infrastructure, which we are not assessing. It's horrendous getting around here. But then, ease of getting around as one of my top 5 favorite things about Palo Alto compared to the rest of SV, so I notice. We don't even have a big picture tool for traffic circulation and planning, and we definitely have never done any kind of egress modeling for disasters. (I don't even want to mention where I can prove to you we are really vulnerable here because I don't want to give the wrong element any ideas.)
If you go back and read my post, we made exactly the same point about earthquakes and loss of life in schools: no one has died but it was because we were lucky, not because of great construction codes. The point being, safety planning is about prevention mainly, not just about responding only once the worst has happened.
How much money we spend is not evidence of spending the money well, having the right priorities, or even good planning (which is often not very expensive -- other maxim: Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.) Our State Mandated Safety Element in the Comprehensive Plan is rolled into the Natural Environment Element as almost an afterthought. Our City Council places a de facto much higher priority on responding to development interests than safety. Just even pulling out the Safety Element and making specific policies related to safety in the Comprehensive Plan would give us an opportunity to make safety more of a priority and focus. Then implementing some of the safety measures other similar municipalities have done given our unique risks.