Property owners play a vital role in preventing the spread of wildfires, particularly to their homes, according to Palo Alto Fire Chief Geoffrey Blackshire.
Eliminating trash and other combustibles near homes and removing wooden fences and other materials that could ignite can mean the difference between having or not having a home to return to after a wildfire.
Patty Ciesla, executive director of the Santa Clara County FireSafe Council, advises residents to "harden" their homes against wildfires, including replacing shake roofs, because embers can start fires anywhere.
"Most embers land on the roof and can set fire if there are leaves in the gutter. Grass lights the fence on fire and it's attached to the house. Embers get into attics with vents and land on your Halloween costumes or Christmas tree decorations," she said.
Keeping brush cleared from around driveways and private roads could mean the difference between life and death. Overgrown vegetation along roads can create fire tunnels, Ciesla said.
"The deaths almost always occur (when) people (are) in their cars," she said.
"Your driveway needs to have its own defensible space so (firefighters) can drive up to your door; so they can go up there and get back out safely," she said.
"Defensible space" is a key strategy against fires areas around the home that have been cleared of brush to slow the spread of fire.
Many homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the foothills were built in the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the vegetation around those homes is now at the end of its lifespan. Vegetation that is 15 feet tall and 30 feet wide will fuel a fire more than 2 or 3 foot tall vegetation, Ciesla said.
Residents should also consider the kinds of plants they have around their properties. Some, such as junipers, burn like gasoline, she said.
Knowing which plants are fire prone and which are fire resistant can help improve chances of curtailing a fire around the home with the added plus of providing habitat for wildlife, land-management experts say.
Here are resources for learning more about preventing wildfires and protecting homes and lives:
• The city of Palo Alto's Wildfire Planning Map helps residents know their evacuation routes and where they can go for safety in the event they can't evacuate. The link to this map also has important information on preparing for wildfire and links to Cal Fire's evacuation guide and Ready Set Go program. Both sites have information about hardening one's home against wildfire and creating defensible spaces.
• Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District works with local residents by offering free fuel-reduction permits that allow property owners to clear vegetation on district land abutting their homes.
• Santa Clara County Fire Department offers information about defensible-space zones.
• Santa Clara County FireSafe Council has a community chipping program to help process and dispose of vegetation. The council offers defensible-space presentations to homeowner and neighborhood associations and will do home-ignition zone inspections for individual homeowners. A trained representative will walk the property with the homeowner for an hour and will educate residents about defensible space and home hardening, making recommendations. They also offer a wildfire-evacuation workshop.
• The National Fire Protection Association's Firewise program teaches residents living near wildlands how to adapt to living with wildfires.
This article is part of a larger story on local fire agencies grappling with a new era of "megafires," which can be found here.