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Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to discuss wildfire fighting program

Proposal seeks to increase preparedness by focusing on technology, response, risk reduction

Smoke from wildfires behind Milpitas is seen from the Palo Alto Baylands in the evening on Aug. 19. Courtesy Brian Krippendorf.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is scheduled to discuss numerous solutions to address the increased threat of wildfires, including the creation of a Wildland Fire Program coordinate fire preparedness countywide.

Santa Clara County has 554,200 acres of unincorporated wildland areas, less than 1% of which has been subject to trimming and other fire safety efforts by Cal Fire.

Increasing temperatures and climate forecasts in the Bay Area indicate that wildfires are a growing threat, according to a Santa Clara County Fire Department 2019 report.

This is evident by the SCU Lightning Complex fires that started in mid-August and has grown to be the second largest wildfire in California history, Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez said.

The report comes from Chavez's efforts since late 2018 to find new solutions within the county's fire department. In June 2019, the Santa Clara County Fire Department came back with a report outlining where the county lacks resources, and with a proposal for the Wildland Fire Program to address those shortages.

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"We want to make sure the county's fire department has enough resources today and in the long run to fight wildfires and to suppress them," Chavez said. "The second thing we are taking a look at is how independent fire districts work today and how could they work better, if in fact we look at consolidation."

Consolidation of independent fire districts will happen in early October, but on Tuesday, the board will focus on the proposed Wildland Fire Program.

The Wildland Fire Program would operate as part of the county Fire Marshal's office, and would focus on three main components — technology, response and risk reduction.

Technology purchased would be used for faster wildfire detection in remote areas and for rapid alert and warning systems.

The county fire department pointed to geographic information system-based computer simulators as a possible solution, as they would help better understand fire spread and behavior under different weather and fuel conditions.

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Advanced cameras could also be purchased, which would help fire departments to detect wildland fires in more remote and unpopulated areas more rapidly. Currently, there are 70 cameras installed statewide, 10 of which are in Santa Clara County.

The county fire department also recommended making significant changes to technology and personnel at the 911 communications center and provide staff specifically to coordinate Alert & Warning efforts so that all county residents receive prompt notifications during emergencies.

Response efforts include building greater regional capacity for specialized resources.

Currently, the county has seven water tenders but no bulldozers, helicopters or hand crews. That means in the event of a wildfire, the county would turn to Cal Fire resources, which if available usually takes hours to deploy, according to the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

However, Cal Fire's Santa Clara Unit only has three bulldozers, one of which is located in the county, and one helicopter. It does not have any water tenders or hand crews. These resources are also directed by the state, so they could be used in other fires and may not even be available to the county.

"The resources available for mutual aid are really stretched — in part because we have wildfires happening across the state at a time, so we (are) going to be unable to move equipment quickly," Chavez said. "Also, cities and counties are going to be more careful about lending equipment because they were worried about protecting their own communities."

In fact, there are 50% fewer local government resources available through the mutual aid system today than there were 15 years ago, according to the county fire department.

In its 2019 report, the county's fire department also emphasized the need to increase response capabilities, especially as Santa Clara County weather forecasts grow more similar to those of Southern California.

"When compared to Southern California counties with more fire history, Santa Clara County has fewer of those response resources available nearby, particularity when viewed in the context of wildland acreage to protect," the report reads.

Chavez said the lack of resources is, in part, a budgetary issue, and also because of the unprecedented number of fires in the Bay Area and across the state.

"We are in the middle of the second-largest fire in our history while we have multiple regions of the state on fire, so one is we have more fires," Chavez said. "But two is — that our firefighters have done such a good job of living within their means that in some ways — we didn't see the urgency as much as we should have. I think that is particularly true as it relates to appointments and staffing."

Risk Reduction emphasizes acting proactively and taking care of fuels (e.g., plants, dry grass, trees) before a wildfire burns without control.

"In order for us to really start to fight these fires, suppression was going to have to be a part of our body of work. We couldn't just rely on our ability to fight fires," Chavez said. "Frankly, the old way we have been doing suppression wouldn't be enough, and that's been the case."

The proposed plan looks at using pre and post-emergent herbicides that could curtail the growth of readily ignitable plants in high-risk areas.

It also suggests buying a Type VI fire engine ($150,000) for wildland fire suppression and prevention projects, purchasing a tractor masticator ($75,000) to establish and maintain fuel breaks and identifying additional labor sources to complete fire risk reduction projects.

Historically, Cal Fire hand crews have been used to assist with fire reduction projects. But with increased fires statewide, the resources are not as readily available. The Santa Clara County Fire Department suggested hiring a hand crew of 12 seasonal employees to conduct fuel reduction efforts countywide.

The purchasing of tools and hiring of a hand crew could also allow the county "take a leadership role" and address the hazardous fuels on the 630 miles of unincorporated roads in high-risk fire areas in the county, according to the county's fire department.

Cost funding the aforementioned recommendations would require a recurring fee from the general fund of $1,211,511 and $437,500 once, according to the county's fire department.

However, Chavez said it is unclear where funding will come from and will be a major point of discussion during Tuesday's meeting.

"The initial report had an approximately $10 million price tag to them. What I don't know is what would change now for County Fire as they are looking around and seeing what the impacts of these fires have already been," Chavez said.

A 2019 report from the Deputy County Executive Garry Herceg also outlined different possible funding sources than the general fund, including state funding and state grants.

Chavez also noted that the climate and weather changes are national, so the federal government would need to "step up" to make funds available in the future.

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Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to discuss wildfire fighting program

Proposal seeks to increase preparedness by focusing on technology, response, risk reduction

by Jana Kadah / Bay City News Service /

Uploaded: Tue, Sep 1, 2020, 9:16 am

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is scheduled to discuss numerous solutions to address the increased threat of wildfires, including the creation of a Wildland Fire Program coordinate fire preparedness countywide.

Santa Clara County has 554,200 acres of unincorporated wildland areas, less than 1% of which has been subject to trimming and other fire safety efforts by Cal Fire.

Increasing temperatures and climate forecasts in the Bay Area indicate that wildfires are a growing threat, according to a Santa Clara County Fire Department 2019 report.

This is evident by the SCU Lightning Complex fires that started in mid-August and has grown to be the second largest wildfire in California history, Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez said.

The report comes from Chavez's efforts since late 2018 to find new solutions within the county's fire department. In June 2019, the Santa Clara County Fire Department came back with a report outlining where the county lacks resources, and with a proposal for the Wildland Fire Program to address those shortages.

"We want to make sure the county's fire department has enough resources today and in the long run to fight wildfires and to suppress them," Chavez said. "The second thing we are taking a look at is how independent fire districts work today and how could they work better, if in fact we look at consolidation."

Consolidation of independent fire districts will happen in early October, but on Tuesday, the board will focus on the proposed Wildland Fire Program.

The Wildland Fire Program would operate as part of the county Fire Marshal's office, and would focus on three main components — technology, response and risk reduction.

Technology purchased would be used for faster wildfire detection in remote areas and for rapid alert and warning systems.

The county fire department pointed to geographic information system-based computer simulators as a possible solution, as they would help better understand fire spread and behavior under different weather and fuel conditions.

Advanced cameras could also be purchased, which would help fire departments to detect wildland fires in more remote and unpopulated areas more rapidly. Currently, there are 70 cameras installed statewide, 10 of which are in Santa Clara County.

The county fire department also recommended making significant changes to technology and personnel at the 911 communications center and provide staff specifically to coordinate Alert & Warning efforts so that all county residents receive prompt notifications during emergencies.

Response efforts include building greater regional capacity for specialized resources.

Currently, the county has seven water tenders but no bulldozers, helicopters or hand crews. That means in the event of a wildfire, the county would turn to Cal Fire resources, which if available usually takes hours to deploy, according to the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

However, Cal Fire's Santa Clara Unit only has three bulldozers, one of which is located in the county, and one helicopter. It does not have any water tenders or hand crews. These resources are also directed by the state, so they could be used in other fires and may not even be available to the county.

"The resources available for mutual aid are really stretched — in part because we have wildfires happening across the state at a time, so we (are) going to be unable to move equipment quickly," Chavez said. "Also, cities and counties are going to be more careful about lending equipment because they were worried about protecting their own communities."

In fact, there are 50% fewer local government resources available through the mutual aid system today than there were 15 years ago, according to the county fire department.

In its 2019 report, the county's fire department also emphasized the need to increase response capabilities, especially as Santa Clara County weather forecasts grow more similar to those of Southern California.

"When compared to Southern California counties with more fire history, Santa Clara County has fewer of those response resources available nearby, particularity when viewed in the context of wildland acreage to protect," the report reads.

Chavez said the lack of resources is, in part, a budgetary issue, and also because of the unprecedented number of fires in the Bay Area and across the state.

"We are in the middle of the second-largest fire in our history while we have multiple regions of the state on fire, so one is we have more fires," Chavez said. "But two is — that our firefighters have done such a good job of living within their means that in some ways — we didn't see the urgency as much as we should have. I think that is particularly true as it relates to appointments and staffing."

Risk Reduction emphasizes acting proactively and taking care of fuels (e.g., plants, dry grass, trees) before a wildfire burns without control.

"In order for us to really start to fight these fires, suppression was going to have to be a part of our body of work. We couldn't just rely on our ability to fight fires," Chavez said. "Frankly, the old way we have been doing suppression wouldn't be enough, and that's been the case."

The proposed plan looks at using pre and post-emergent herbicides that could curtail the growth of readily ignitable plants in high-risk areas.

It also suggests buying a Type VI fire engine ($150,000) for wildland fire suppression and prevention projects, purchasing a tractor masticator ($75,000) to establish and maintain fuel breaks and identifying additional labor sources to complete fire risk reduction projects.

Historically, Cal Fire hand crews have been used to assist with fire reduction projects. But with increased fires statewide, the resources are not as readily available. The Santa Clara County Fire Department suggested hiring a hand crew of 12 seasonal employees to conduct fuel reduction efforts countywide.

The purchasing of tools and hiring of a hand crew could also allow the county "take a leadership role" and address the hazardous fuels on the 630 miles of unincorporated roads in high-risk fire areas in the county, according to the county's fire department.

Cost funding the aforementioned recommendations would require a recurring fee from the general fund of $1,211,511 and $437,500 once, according to the county's fire department.

However, Chavez said it is unclear where funding will come from and will be a major point of discussion during Tuesday's meeting.

"The initial report had an approximately $10 million price tag to them. What I don't know is what would change now for County Fire as they are looking around and seeing what the impacts of these fires have already been," Chavez said.

A 2019 report from the Deputy County Executive Garry Herceg also outlined different possible funding sources than the general fund, including state funding and state grants.

Chavez also noted that the climate and weather changes are national, so the federal government would need to "step up" to make funds available in the future.

Comments

ALB
Registered user
College Terrace
on Sep 1, 2020 at 1:32 pm
ALB, College Terrace
Registered user
on Sep 1, 2020 at 1:32 pm

This article describes how our climate has changed to be like that of Southern California where there is more experience in mitigating fires. Why not study the techniques employed by the Native Americans who for thousands of years used fire to prevent fires. I do not see how herbicides can do the job. Santa Clara County needs more equipment, technology and fire fighters to be prepared. The Diablo winds will return in autumn. Hopefully this August lightening storm is a fluke but we cannot bet on that being so. I applaud the supervisors for taking this critical issue seriously.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Sep 1, 2020 at 2:33 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 1, 2020 at 2:33 pm

We are as unprepared for wildland fires as we were for Covid 19. Prevention and the creation of standby emergency response capability - not paper plans but people and equipment - are always underfunded because we believe it won't happen here.

WRONG! Sept and October are our highest wildland fire risk months.

The next big fire could very easily be on the Bay side of Skyline with thousands of homes that are NOT DEFENDABLE because they have happily been built in fuel rich areas (trees and brush) on narrow roads that will both impede evacuation and fire response. Many of those homes will be destroyed and hundreds of people will be trapped attempting to evacuation and may well perish.

Former US Forest Service Smokejumper


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Sep 1, 2020 at 5:13 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 1, 2020 at 5:13 pm

And these weather forecasts will make the situation much worse:

Record heat possible once again Labor Day weekend; wildfire risk to worsen following reprieve
Filed in Weather/Climate Discussion by Daniel Swain on September 1, 2020 • 101 Comments

"The GFS ensemble has recently started to disagree–and now suggests the potential for a potent early-season “inside slider”-type low pressure system to drop southward over Nevada and interior California in the 7-10 day period. If this were to happen, I would expect a fairly dramatic cooling trend (which would be good news), but also a potentially significant offshore/north wind event (which would be very problematic) along with continued dry conditions. At this point in time, neither of these scenarios would be great from a fire weather perspective, especially given that there are still numerous large fires burning across NorCal that will likely still be burning 10-15 days from now. I really do wish I had better news to pass along about the weather to come, but the reality is that autumn is often peak fire season in coastal California due to the increasing prevalence of offshore wind events. Most of the state probably has at least 2 months of fire season remaining, perhaps 3 (or even 4 in SoCal). My hope is that we can at least avoid a large number of additional fire ignitions in the coming weeks and months given the extremely dry state of the vegetation and the ongoing fire crisis, but given the realities of modern California that’s more wishful thinking than anything else. Stay safe out there."

Web Link

A week of high temperatures will reduce the fuel moisture to less than 10% and then high winds will follow. One spark is all it will take to create an inferno. The only way to prevent a big fire is to hit every little fire with overwhelming force within minutes - sadly we do not have that capability in the Bay area. And the only way to stop a big fire is a big change in weather which increases the humidity, has no wind and, finally, rain. Remember the LNU fire jumped 8 lanes of Highway 80 in Vacaville - you cannot build fire lines that wide.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Sep 4, 2020 at 11:43 am
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 4, 2020 at 11:43 am

As predicted:
"As if the Bay Area didn’t need any more headaches, the National Weather Service on Friday issued a “fire weather watch” for the East Bay Hills and North Bay Hills for Monday night at 10 p.m. through Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. With low humidity levels, hot, dry winds are forecast to blow toward the ocean from Utah and Nevada, reaching up to 45 mph at higher elevations and spiking fire risk from San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos to Santa Rosa, particularly on Tuesday."

Please be very careful with all fire sources(barbecues, lawn mowers, auto exhausts, etc.) and be prepared to evacuate. Have a go bag and a plan and don't wait to be told if you sense danger.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Sep 12, 2020 at 1:11 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 12, 2020 at 1:11 pm

Well folks things are not getting any better and we still have at least two months of fire season to go.

Here is another perspective:

"Witnessing the urban fire in Paradise, some of those we interviewed for our book no longer thought it fanciful that a fire that could maraud into the very heart of a major city, such as Los Angeles, San Diego or the communities of the San Francisco Bay."

Web Link


Jennifer Landesmann
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Sep 13, 2020 at 12:54 am
Jennifer Landesmann, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Sep 13, 2020 at 12:54 am

Peter Carpenter,

"...Prevention and the creation of standby emergency response capability - not paper plans but people and equipment - are always underfunded because we believe it won't happen here."

My observation is that funding and attention depends on politics (like everything). How often have we heard political candidates or folks in office say they want people to come to them with "solutions" (not problems).

"Problems" is what risk management science is all about. Problems which don't have easy solutions or can't be foreseen. Politicians don't have a standard to leave their county, city or state "better prepared" for something when they are gone. So - am glad to see the term "risk" come up here and suggest that risk management has been the road less traveled with politicians. Unlike Covid, in the case of fires, googling risk management and fires I get enough hits to know that this issue is not new.

I also applaud the supervisors for taking this seriously and suggest that funding will follow when risk management is elevated in the culture of government and leadership.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Sep 13, 2020 at 10:09 am
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 13, 2020 at 10:09 am

For anyone who thinks that "it can't happen here" on the flat lands of the peninsula look at this graphic video of the wind driven Alameda Drive Fire which started in north Ashland Or and destroyed most of the towns of Talent and Phoenix. Note the relatively light tree canopy - most of the fuel was the homes themselves.

Web Link


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 13, 2020 at 10:18 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Sep 13, 2020 at 10:18 am

Problem 1 is the amount of overgrowth of vegetation which dies in the heat and is next to road ways and public parks. SU uses cattle to clear the hills next to 280 of overgrowth. Managed goat herds have been used to clear poison ivy and berry bushes on golf courses and public park areas. VTA used goat herds at 237 and Zanker Road when they had a large facility there. That whole area in the Baylands was over grown and hard to get to places.

Suggest that each city look at where they are vulnerable regarding overgrowth, especially next to public access areas. Shoreline is vulnerable regarding over growth. Palo Alto also has overgrowth down at the shoreline areas next to 101. I look at the flood control at Louis Road and the giant ditch has dead matter in it - large dead bushes. Is it coming from the higher elevations?

Each city should review where their weaknesses are next to parks and homes. Also look at homes which are not keeping their overall landscaping clear of overgrowth and cite them - get them going on clearing the overgrowth and dead vegetation. Also overgrowth on trees which stress out when it is hot or fall leaf drop time. Home owners have to manage their properties individually.

The city garbage collectors need to accommodate additional leaf bags in excess of the plastic cans. If people are limited by the garbage collector provided cans then that has to be renegotiated.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Sep 13, 2020 at 10:25 am
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 13, 2020 at 10:25 am

Resident - look at the video. Very little of this fire was carried by vegetation - the largest fuel source was the homes themselves. Things like combustible roofs, unscreened soffit vents, etc allowed the homes to easily catch fire and burn and when they did the heat and embers from each of those homes spread the fire to other structures.

This is not somebody else's problem to manage vegetation - it is everyones problem to both manage vegetation and to build/retrofit fire resistant structures.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 13, 2020 at 10:37 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Sep 13, 2020 at 10:37 am

I was in Maui when a major fire was in process in the hills at a major intersection regarding the west and south hotel areas. We all had to wait at the bottom. At some point they had to let out the people going to the airport and let in the people arriving from the airport. We all drove through with flying embers going every which way in the wind generated by the fire. The embers were gigantic. That whole transition point has been rebuilt with a new highway that has no growth next to it.

They are building new transition points so that people can be moved from point a to point b on roads that have very low vegetation. Since they are in the tourist trade then moving people around the islands safely is a major concern. They put money and manpower into clearing the public places.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Sep 14, 2020 at 5:01 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 14, 2020 at 5:01 pm

Some very useful guidance as to what each of us can do to address the risks of wildland fires:

Web Link


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Sep 15, 2020 at 10:11 am
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Sep 15, 2020 at 10:11 am

In much of the wildland urban interface on the Bay side of Skyline Ridge this exact same scenario could easily occur:

Web Link


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Oct 1, 2020 at 3:26 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Oct 1, 2020 at 3:26 pm

The Glass Fire in Napa County reminds us that the fire season is not over and that even flat land areas are at great risk.

Web Link

This is why the areas between the Bay and Skyline would be very dangerous if there is a fire here - NONE of it has burned in over a century:

"Cal Fire records show that the Glass Fire roared through one of the last territories in that part of Sonoma County that had avoided fires for more than a century - making it rich in vegetation that helped fuel its rapid growth.

When vineyards, which are on relatively flat land or mildly sloped hillsides and have virtually no undergrowth or tree canopy, burn then why would anybody think that the Peninsula from the Bay to Skyline won't burn:

Web Link

All it takes is an ignition source, low humidity and winds blowing from the point of ignition towards any available fuel.

When will our local elected and appointed officials realize that we have a crisis and that immediate action needs to be taken to reduce fuel loads, revise building codes, retrofit existing structures, develop realistic evacuation plans and upgrade our fire detection and suppression capabilities?

We have our collective heads buried in the sand.



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