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Could the North Bay inferno happen here?

'What troubles me is the lack of time that people had to get out,' says Menlo Park fire chief

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It's fire season in Woodside and Portola Valley, two wooded communities that analysis has shown have terrain, prevailing winds and the types and moisture content of vegetation that make for a severe risk of wildfire. Not that far away are raging infernos, driven by low humidity and dry northeasterly winds, that led to a devastating loss of life and property in the North Bay.

An aerial video of the suburban Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa shows block after block after block of parcels that are now uniformly, and chillingly, the color of ash.

Could such a fire happen here?

"We don't typically get those type of winds, but that doesn't mean that they couldn't happen," Fire Chief Dan Ghiorso of the Woodside Fire Protection District said. "Mother Nature makes her own rules."

"That is a wind-driven fire," the chief said of the fire that destroyed Coffey Park. "There is just too much wind for anybody to do anything about that. The fire's just moving too fast, with way too much heat and the humidity is low. ... It's just so intense that there is no way to stop it."

It's not yet known what happened in Coffey Park, what caused the fire to spread from house to house to house, the chief said. But the Woodside fire district will take what lessons it can from "the nightmare that's been happening up there," he said.

From the inside out

Woodside district Fire Marshal Denise Enea noted that while some 2,000 houses are now gone in Santa Rosa, the trees are still there an indication that the homes may have burned from the inside, that burning embers found a way in.

When an ember is in the outside air, it quickly burns itself out, but when it's inside a house, "it's like getting into a box," Enea said. "It has nowhere to go so it has to burn the box." Embers enter through an airway, which can then serve to funnel air inside to feed the fire. "These houses could have had hundreds or thousand of embers (inside)," she said.

Embers would behave no differently here than there, but the conditions that led to the intensity of the Santa Rosa fires are uncommon here, Enea said.

"The Bay creates a lot of water moisture in the air, as does the ocean and its off-shore breezes, which keep winds blowing from west to east, which is always the saving grace for us," she said. "Ninety percent of the time, that's the wind we have. That's why we're so very very lucky."

The Woodside fire district is most vulnerable in the absence of offshore winds, and when the air is hot and dry. But 50-mph winds are "very very infrequent" here, she said. "When you have that type of weather," she added, "there is no structure that is totally fireproof."

Had the wind come up during the Skeggs fire in mid-September in the hills west of Woodside, "that would have been a game-changer," Chief Ghiorso said.

Raining fire

The destruction of Coffey Park has changed the norm for flatland communities, said Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. But the same thing happening in the Menlo Park Fire Protection District has a very low probability, he said.

"You can't say never because that would be a little dangerous to think it could never happen," he said.

Efforts to remove ignitable material from around structures might not have mattered in Santa Rosa, he said. Restaurants, schools, hotels, all burned. As to the possibility that buildings might not have been sufficiently protected against the entry of embers, Chief Schapelhouman noted that the conditions were severe.

With a constant horizontal stream of embers crossing the road at 50 mph, 60 mph, 70 mph, "it's basically raining fire," he said. "What we just saw is really something that hasn't been seen before in an urban environment."

"There's no reality to compare it to," he said. But now that this fire has occurred, an analysis can begin, lessons can be learned, and the state building code may be amended, he said.

A big difference between this fire and the Oakland Hills fire in 1991 is that firefighters in Oakland were familiar with the behavior of fire on hills, he said.

What to do?

"I do think the residents (in the Woodside fire district) are more proactive than many residents throughout the state of California," Chief Ghiorso said. The guidelines for fire safety are well publicized: avoid shake shingles and roofs, protect against the intrusion of embers, remove vegetation that could ignite from around homes, have evacuation plans.

The town of Woodside allocates $100,000 every year to a fund that pays residents up to $2,000 in a 50 percent match to take such steps as removing dead brush and woody debris from around a structure, mowing dry grass, removing limbs from nearby trees and removing some trees altogether.

"Residents are taking fire resistance zones seriously, replacing the roofs at the right time, installing ember-resistant vents," the chief said. "Not everybody is doing it. Slowly but surely we are getting there."

"The tragedy that is happening in Northern California right now, we should learn from it," Enea said. "People should take heed and try to build their houses as fire safe as possible.

"I'm really proud of how we get people signed up for SMC Alert," Enea said. "Lots of people are very inquisitive.

There are district residents who are "very upset" to see the destruction of thousands of homes that are just an hour away, she said. "People are having a hard time with this amount of smoke in their community," she said. "It's very disturbing to them."

Chief Schapelhouman said he's been thinking about the loss of cellphone service that led to Coffey Park residents waking up only when their neighbors were pounding on their doors. "Really what troubles me is the lack of time that people had to get out," he said. "A lot of them weren't notified at all."

A siren would have helped, he said. Cellphones may be more effective, but why not have both, he said. "Notification didn't occur. The notification fell apart. You've got to go back to something that's simple and that will work," he said. "You could have essentially woken the community up."

Related content:

Rising up to meet the disaster

Behind the Headlines: Locals share fire-relief stories

Local sports practices canceled as dense smoke lingers

Health advisory in effect due to smoke from North Bay fires

Where to donate for victims of North Bay wildfires

Could the North Bay inferno happen here?


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21 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 18, 2017 at 11:01 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

As an experienced wildland fire professional I am deeply concerned that our entire area, with its heavy (and beautiful) fuel/vegetation load and with the significant use of flammable construction materials is as significant risk of exactly the type of devastation that occurred in Santa Rosa.

We need better preparation, planning, alerting systems, voluntary and mandatory fire safety/fuel load reduction/removal zones, voluntary and mandatory removal of flammable construction materials and well defined, tested and signed evacuation routes.

3 people like this
Posted by Teresa
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 18, 2017 at 12:40 pm

After watching the Fires, and having a friends deaf sister be saved at the last minute in her pajamas. (her helping dog woke her up)(she lost everything else). I urge our cities and/or counties to put in alarm systems. Land phones are great IF you can hear them!!! Obviously cell phones are somewhat useless for this as they are not address savvy(cell phone towers fail), and as folks often turn them off at night. Sirens seem to be the best resort at this time. Could they be attached to the folks electricity connections so areas could be alerted as needed. Everyone has electricity, and folks could pay for the the indoor "emergency alert". Operated on a switch system in utility dept???
Or am I being naive? I for one would be more calm If I felt I was going to be warned if there was a fire/earthquake/flood/ dangerous situation.

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2017 at 2:25 pm

I am no expert, but it seems to me that if the big problem common cause of these fires have been fallen/exploding power lines, it is imperative that we put much more effort into undergrounding our power lines.

Power lines hanging on wooden poles, passing through trees of dying leaves, landing on dry vegetation when they are sparking, blowing down in heavy winds and rains, are just not a safe system. We are not a third world country, but our power distribution system looks antiquated compared to modern, efficient systems.

10 people like this
Posted by Oakland Survivor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2017 at 10:33 pm

Was there any video or witness to the Coffey Park fire through the hours when most of the homes burned? We all see the conflagration on the news because it makes good video, but much of the destruction in Oakland happened house-to-house, slowly, because no one was there to pour water on a given fire. I have hours of video from up on Broadway Terrace (I didn't take) showing this. A house would be on fire, and the heat would break out a window in the next house and ignite paper or something inside. This would burn slowly and just build over time. Then the house would set the next house on fire. I wonder how much this was the case in Coffey Park, especially since so much vegetation next to houses was fine.

One thing that seemed to help in Oakland was distance and insulation. I attended an event that discussed what was learned about lone houses that survived. First, just don't have shake roofs. Don't have plants like juniper which burn really hot and long and ignite from small embers. Houses that were offset from neighboring houses, or were well insulated, fared better. In a few cases, people observed that the outer pane of their double panes windows busted out but the inner lane remained intact and thus nothing ignited in the house.

There are homeowners kits now of nontoxic fire retardant gels that last for hours and can easily be applied with a garden hose and even resettled later with minimal water. They might be good for neighborhood groups to purchase to get volume discounts. They are available for use by professionals to whom they are mainly sold. This might be a way for local towns to avoid the same fate. The LA Times had an article - one brand that has homeowners kits is Thermo-gel.

I remember seeing a show about how the big fire long time ago in Berkeley burned all the way to Ashby but students saved the university by throwing wet wool blankets over fences. I wonder sometimes if that's an answer, large thin wool blankets tarped over houses, secured in place, and wetted. It wouldn't be as easy as spraying on gel but wool is itself flame retardant and would last longer. Or just gel for the gutters and wool over the windows somehow.

Anyway, I hope safety advocates do not waste the opportunity to get the City to consider things like traffic circulation/egress/evacuation routes and safety after this, because it's not just Safety Last at City Hall, it's safety shmafety.

Earthquakes are a huge reason for fires to get going and spread in this way. The hundreds of thousands of people who died in the Tokyo earthquake a hundred years ago, died mainly because of fire and lack of egress. We should learn from that. People can do a lot to just upgrade their foundations (so the house doesn't slip off the foundation and sever gas lines) or get seismic gas shut off valves. Just having a proper tool and knowing how to use it to shut off the gas is helpful.

Safety First

10 people like this
Posted by Oakland survivor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2017 at 10:38 pm

There are homeowners kits now of nontoxic fire retardant gels that last for hours and can easily be applied with a garden hose and even REWETTED later with minimal water.

Sorry, darned Otto Correct

7 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

While the extreme weather patterns do not typically occur in the peninsula, the more subtle warming/drying patterns still do happen every summer and fall. The late season conditions of dry vegetation, both dead and live plants, will readily burn if all the conditions line up. The lower foothills along Hwy 280 are ripe for this type of incident. Areas along Bol Park/Gunn HS, Arastradero Rd between Alta Mesa Cemetery towards Pagemill are classic interface zones that are all but ignored for preventative treatments. Los Altos Hills is the perfectly primed fire area with dense pockets of vegetation, narrow winding roads and big estates behind locked gates. The fire chiefs in Palo Alto over the last 25-30 years have all been slowly ignoring the foothills residents as the 1985 fire fades into only the memories of the old and retired. They all know that the hills are a ticking timebomb, and performing minimal prevention work long the roads will not prevent a disaster if conditions are right. Every single chief is praying that they are long retired when the next big foothills fire occurs, otherwise there will be heads rolling. Roll the dice baby, you're still winning.

4 people like this
Posted by Oakland survivor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 19, 2017 at 10:55 am

Well said. I hope with the devastation in Coffey Park, people realize that ignoring the ticking time bomb - including traffic circulation and egress - will not only affect people with houses in the hills.

Other areas of Palo Alto that seem urban but are vulnerable are all those areas by Stanford and North Palo Alto near the mall.

3 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 19, 2017 at 10:55 am

One issue we see in PA is the cities reluctance to take down trees which are in the process of dying. Take El Camino and Oregon Expressway - they are deliberately killing the redwood trees on the corner of the property because they have made up some law that prevents the removal of redwood trees that are doing well. So make them die which then allows for removal. I have a redwood tree that is not doing well and the city says it is a heritage tree and I can't take it down - or trim it myself. It needs a haircut - as do all trees. The city has made up policies which are not conducive to fire retardation. The fire problem in PA will race across the tree line so the tree line is what needs to be managed.

7 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 19, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Compared to dead trees, Palo Alto has a bigger ticking time bomb due to non-fireproof houses. There was a house that burned down at the corner of Bryant and Redwood slightly over a year ago ... the flames went up really high. Luckily, there wasn't a heavy wind that day to spread the fire through the entire neighborhood, else we would have had a Santa Rosa on our hands right here in Palo Alto.

The problem is that a cheap developer built these unsafe houses 50 years ago without any regard to fire safety, and until these houses are demolished and replaced with something up to code, Palo Alto is at a huge fire risk. We really need to invest in our children and remove these fire risks from the neighborhoods.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 24, 2017 at 5:39 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

An absolute must read - Does California need to rethink urban fire risk after wine country tragedy?:

Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 24, 2017 at 4:41 pm

I dislike the messy dry tall weeds and brush and trash found at many highway intersections around here. Likely surprises new visitors to the area that THIS! is the entrance to the vaunted Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Looks ill-maintained and actual main point....a bigtime fire hazard.
I recall a fire circa 1985 at side of 280 near Page Mill that burned up the hills and dry brush there and I believe damaged large houses just above the freeway there. Same thing could potentially happen 101/Embarcadero/Oregon, I fear. Some people still smoke, workers throw their butts in the street and sidewalk in front of my home (neighbor building a house for years). Let's hope nobody does this in these nearby non-maintained brushy areas.

1 person likes this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 24, 2017 at 9:19 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Easy to happen; Starts on Stanford land, then down the mountainside into Palo Alto. My father-in-law lost his house in one Boulder, Colorado hillside, all that was left was a heat spalled patch of concrete.
My ex was involved with a fire actually coming down the hillside toward her trailer park in the Boulder City limits. Firefighters contained the fire when it hit the grasslands due west of Boulder proper. I've played and traveled on the Stanford property. If a grass fire is allowed to get into the treetops, a " crowning effect " makes a fire grow faster than a man can run! Ever worse, when a fire gets big enough, it creates it's own weather.
At that time, all a firefighter team can do is deprive a fire of it's fuel, like starting a firebreak or bulldozing a perimeter. In the mountains, sometimes it is just a matter of saving structures and letting old growth burn, as they cannot get to a fire or could be trapped by it like the Colorado Storm King fire which killed several firefighters.

The Northern California fire pictures I've seen are much like those estimates of the destruction of 10kt Nukes. Yes, the blast damage from an estimated air burst looks much the same. ( Cray Supercomputers helped design our later arsenals and estimates were computed of possible yields of the latest GPS guided small yield bombs ). Smokers, keep your butts in your cars and NEVER drive a catalytic converter car into an open field! A Catalytic Converter operates around 1200 to 1500 degrees when operating. If the heat shield is damaged or missing, you could lose far more than your car.... I always carry a fire extinguisher in my car. I'm also trained how to use it properly. AMD training for FAB and TEST AREA requirements. Live testing in the parking lot. Sorry about the scare tactics but I was a Boy Scout too and " Be Prepared " is the same motto of the US Coast Guard ( Semper Paratus )

5 people like this
Posted by Oakland Survivor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2017 at 2:38 pm

I find it very discouraging that despite what has just happened in Santa Rosa, we are doing nothing about prioritizing safety in our discussions of the Comprehensive Plan. We have ignored safety for too long here. We hear how truly trivial traffic incidents like a car broken down can bring whole regions to a halt, yet we do nothing to prioritize traffic circulation with a Safety First mindset. Attention to safety tends to solve both issues.

After the Oakland fire was investigated, one of the big problems unearthed was that fire hydrants in Oakland had a different hose fitting than surrounding communities, so mutual aid could not plug into the hydrants. My neighborhood had water pressure that entire night, and my next door neighbor was a trained firefighter who said a 1-inch hose would have saved the whole neighborhood, but mutual aid was parked on the freeway when he evacuated and could do nothing because no one prioritized safety in the advanced planning stage. Prioritizing safety means you look very suspiciously at any proposal that starts with the words "We can always..." as in, We can always pass out hose adaptors.

We live in earthquake country, and the big threat beyond the shaking earth is fire. I wish our City Councilmembers would remember that the safety of their friends and family is at risk, too.

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