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.