The city is working with Stanford University and regional agencies such as the Santa Clara County Fire Department, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CalFire) and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to identify and manage risks in the vulnerable areas in and around the foothills that make up the "wildland urban interface." And as part of a recently formed partnership with the county, the city is now operating Fire Station 8 in the foothills seven days a week. On days where fire risk is particularly steep, crews extend their shifts at Station 8 from 12 to 24 hours.
Even these efforts may not be enough, city officials acknowledged Monday. The city's wealth of open spaces, particularly in and around Foothills and Arastradero preserves, could turn into a tinderbox, as it almost did a year ago, when the CZU Lightning Complex fires began to approach the city. During the council's discussion of fire management, Deputy Fire Chief Kevin McNally recalled being told that the wind will turn east and that they will be "hot and fast," forcing the city to consider evacuations for the hundreds of homes in the foothills.
"We prepped and we prepped and we started going through the homes in the neighborhoods and letting them know that something might be coming," McNally said. "We were asking them to fill out cards, letting us know if people were left behind."
Luckily, the wind shift never came and the crisis was averted. But as Vice Mayor Pat Burt and other council members acknowledged Monday, the city may not be so fortunate next time. Even with the increased investment in fire prevention and improved coordination between agencies, Burt suggested that the city and its partners need to invest even more in fire protection.
"We're facing a very acute risk," Burt said. "It's not good enough to say, 'We're doing a lot more than we were before and we're doing a pretty darn good job compared to other agencies that we benchmark against. The benchmarking has to be against the level of risk, and I don't think we're there yet."
The city's emergency responders have been taking some action to boost fire-prevention efforts, including conducting annual inspections to foothills properties to ensure residents are creating adequate "defensible space" around their homes. This includes removal of all dead plants and branches and removing leaves from their yards, roofs, rain gutters and other spaces within 30 feet from buildings, as well as cutting grass down to a maximum height of 4 inches within 100 feet of buildings. Earlier this month, staff from the Fire and Office of Emergency Services outlined these steps in a community meeting with residents from Palo Alto Hills and other vulnerable areas.
"The more that could be done at the front end by property owners to make their properties savable, the better chance we have of saving them on the back end," McNally said. "If we have three homes and two are well prepared and one is not, oftentimes we do the most we can with the resources we have and save the two, if the one requires too much work."
Ken Dueker, director of Palo Alto's Office of Emergency Services, said his office has also been encouraging residents to sign up for early warning systems such as AlertSCC and Zonehaven to get information about evacuations. They should also be prepared to leave even without an official order, Dueker said.
"Really, those of us in the first-responder community want to encourage people to not hesitate — not wait to be informed by some official channel, much less a knock on your door at 2 a.m.," Dueker said. "That's what we've been telling everyone consistently."
City staff also acknowledged in a new report that even the actions recently taken collectively by agencies, landowners and property owners in the near- and mid-term "might not be sufficient to mitigate or prevent a major fire."
"As we are seeing now with large fires in California and other areas of the Pacific Northwest, the usual concepts of defensible space, fuel reduction, and firefighting can be obviated when such fires generate their own winds (fire weather) and become unstoppable by humans," the report states.
Other agencies are also stepping up their efforts to meet the growing threat. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has recently expanded firebreaks along Montebello Road and is planning to remove about 100 eucalyptus trees in the area of Page Mill Road and Skyline Boulevard, said Craig Beckman, area manager for the open space district.
Stanford University is also accelerating its vegetation management plan in areas such as Jasper Ridge, though the effort is hampered by a shortage of contractors available to perform the work, Stanford Fire Marshal Aaron McCarthy said.
"There's not a lot of people available to do this all as quickly as we need it done," McCarthy told the council. "That's something we're going to try to address as we move forward."
Stanford is now developing artificial intelligence technologies for fire detection. It is also evaluating the use of fire retardants in frequently visited areas, including around Interstate Highway 280, along Junipero Serra Boulevard and under power poles.
To help develop new technology, Palo Alto officials are proposing to use the city as a "test bed" that convenes different government agencies, academics, nonprofits and private companies.
"All of us really need to work together. This is not a single agency or single discipline challenge," Dueker said. "Wildfires in particular stretch everyone beyond their limits, even the big state agencies."
While the council didn't take any formal actions Monday, members strongly supported the recent efforts to improve coordination with Stanford and other partners in the region. They also supported recent moves by the Community Services Department to shut down nine barbecue pits in camping areas in the foothills. The city has not, however, closed down the 28 pits in the Orchard Glen picnic area or the two in the Orchard Glen area in Foothills Nature Preserve.
Burt and council member Greer Stone both said they would support a broader prohibition on fire pits in the foothills until the end of the fire season. Stone recalled last year, when his parents and his sister left their homes due to hazards posed by the CZU fires. After spending several anxious weeks with friends, they were relieved to learn that their homes were saved.
"My family was lucky. Many others were not," Stone said. "Driving up to their house is just always a heartbreaking reminder of those who lost their homes."