Foothills plan to dampen fire threat
Fire-management plan identifies hot spots and 'dead-end' neighborhoods, cites need for greater regional coordination
Flames up to 20 feet high could sweep at up to 4 miles per hour toward homes in some areas of the Palo Alto foothills, according to a newly released fire-danger map.
Some residents would only have one way out.
The first comprehensive foothills fire-management plan in 26 years will come before the Palo Alto City Council in mid-November.
The sweeping plan was unveiled last night at Foothills Park after four months of research by consultants and public agencies.
The goal is to prevent an epic wildfire in the foothills that could wipe out homes — particularly in neighborhoods with only one road in and out — and businesses.
The plan covers the area southwest of Foothill Expressway and Junipero Serra Boulevard and unincorporated San Mateo County. It includes developing evacuation routes, staffing for the foothills fire station, a wildland-management plan to reduce the "fuel load" of plants and the development of an emergency-communications network.
A major fire has not burned in the area since 1912, according to Palo Alto Fire Chief Nick Marinaro, when he outlined the plan at a community meeting last May.
The greatest areas of fire danger are on the west side of Foothills Park bordered by Los Trancos Creek and Trappers Fire Road, south of Boronda Lake, according to draft "FlamMaps," which show the anticipated speed, size and intensity of potential fires based on an area's terrain, typical wind patterns and type of vegetation. A red, high-danger band runs from Steep Hollow Trail southeast toward Moody Road.
Flames could reach heights of more than 20 feet in parts of the foothills, including Foothills Park and more than 8 feet in Arastradero Preserve, according to the maps.
Chaparral and grasslands produce the fastest spread of fire, which could travel up to 4 miles per hour south of Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club, the maps estimate.
Residences nestled between Arastradero Road, the golf course and the northern end of Foothills Park and in Portola Valley in Los Trancos and Vista Verde are also in danger.
"In the wildland/urban interface, a fire is an endemic risk when people want to live there," management-plan Project Manager Ken Dueker, a reserve officer with the Palo Alto Police Department, said.
Spurred in part by the disastrous Summit Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, fire districts from Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, police and representatives from Stanford University, nonprofit organizations, businesses and neighborhood associations first met in late May with the two consultants.
Marinaro said a large fire would naturally sweep the mountains every 50 to 100 years, burning up the "fuel load" — dry brush, grasses and dead trees. But decades of fire suppression have left four to five times the normal fuel load, he said.
The city will focus on lands under its management — Foothills Park and Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in particular — and other agencies such as the open space district will also consider plans for reducing the fire hazard on their lands, Dueker said.
Residents on Alexis Drive, surrounded by hotspots, said they feel more comfortable with a comprehensive plan taking shape. The uncertainty of manning the foothills Fire Station 8 in the last few years made residents jittery.
"It was the reason my husband ran for City Council," Sandy Nadim, wife of former candidate Mark Nadim, said. They have lived there for 22 years.
"We both saw the danger of fire at Arastradero when the  fire burned seven or eight houses," she said.
Nadim said a major concern for her is the funding of any plan.
"Only this year I learned that funding [for Fire Station 8] comes from a special fund. We need to have general-fund money as the criteria," she said.
William Radcliffe, a former firefighter, has attended past meetings on the plan.
"On this side of the mountain we're still afraid it might burn. There really is no good way of stopping it," he said of a potential fire. But the draft plan appears well thought out, he said.
The golf course is the best fire break the community has, and plans are taking shape to use the golf course as a refuge for residents and firefighters who cannot escape from the mountains, Dueker said.
Creating "defensible" spaces around homes, water tanks, park structures and roads are top priorities for the city and residents. Evacuation routes traversing Page Mill and Alpine roads, Page Mill and Moody Road and along Los Trancos Road and Skyline Boulevard must have brush and flammable materials controlled to reduce the chance of turning into "tunnels of fire," Dueker said.
Escape routes could also be created across private properties with owners' permission, he added. The plan calls for adding color-coded signage along evacuation routes.
Radcliffe said the Palo Alto Hills Neighborhood Association is working on setting up a communications network to relay information to police and fire agencies.
"We will coordinate with surrounding neighborhoods. ... They've drummed it into our heads that we will be on our own for awhile until help gets there," he said.
Thursday's meeting was the last of three scheduled before the Draft Foothills Fire Management Plan and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) plan will be submitted to the Palo Alto City Council. The plan will be posted on the city's website next week and a 30-day public-comment period will begin.
The council will consider adoption of the plan in mid-November, according to Cheryl Miller, a consultant with Amphion Environmental, Inc., an East Bay consulting firm that co-authored the plan with Wildland Resource Management, Inc.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.