No long-term damage from Stanford fire, experts say | August 3, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 3, 2007

No long-term damage from Stanford fire, experts say

Ecosystem should recover after blaze, but nearby homeowners nonetheless cautioned to safeguard property

by Arden Pennell

After wildfires burned nearly 200 acres of the Stanford University Dish area, transforming gold and green foothills into charred earth, some Dish regulars are concerned about the area's future.

"Look at those trees. They're gone now," said Sandra Paz of Mountain View last week, pointing to the rust-colored treetops of an oak grove standing on black ground.

A June 25 fire, started by two juveniles, burned approximately 171 acres, while a second fire on July 5, whose causes remain unknown, burned another 20 acres. The trails reopened July 21.

Despite the hills' burnt, ashy appearances, Stanford biologist Dr. Alan Launer said the Dish ecosystem should recover -- and possibly improve.

"Fires are not necessarily bad," Launer said. "A lot of nutrients were freed up by the burn, and it probably wasn't hot enough to damage the seed bank deep in the soil, so we should see a good pulse of growth once it rains."

The fire may even bring a prettier spring, Launer said.

"Native plants withstand fire better than weeds, so we could see more wildflowers than usual," he said.

And because it helps regenerate the soil and clears out invasive non-native growth, fire can be an effective way to manage an ecosystem: "If biologists were allowed to do it, we might even run more burns."

However, the quickly moving flames were not without victims.

"There were little guys like squirrels and bunnies who didn't escape. They became food for hawks and coyotes that came in right after the burn to scavenge," said Launer, who collected data after the fire.

Launer predicted a dip in the small mammal population yet said year-to-year fluctuations are normal.

His sole worry was for younger oak trees, which were already strained by an uncommonly dry spring. They may die in larger numbers than would be otherwise expected.

This concern was echoed by David Schrom of Magic, a nonprofit group that has been contracted by Stanford to plant oaks at the Dish since 1984.

"In a drought year, the trees may have already exhausted the energy stored in their roots and be less resilient to strain caused by fire," Schrom said.

Yet a study conducted by Magic after a 1994 fire at the Dish showed that only the smallest saplings were killed, leaving Schrom hopeful that most trees will recover this time.

Although the blaze seems to have left flora and fauna with little long-term damage, and there were no human casualties, Stanford Director of Community Relation Jean McCown said that greater safety measures will be taken in the future.

"We are adding fire hydrants behind that row of houses along the dish. We are also considering closing the area on 'Red Flag Warning' days," McCown said, referring to the National Weather Service's designation for days with high wildfire risk.

Chief Ken McGeever of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Morgan Hill command center said homeowners living at a wildland-urban interface, such as those near the Dish area, should maintain 100 feet of defensible space around their houses.

"It doesn't mean to go bare earth on the property, but to cut down weeds and cut tree limbs to at least 8 feet off the ground."

McGeever heads a unit that Palo Alto fire department Chief Nick Marinaro said was crucial in combating the fire.

"Calfire made a huge difference. Their fixed-wing aircraft dropped retardants in front of the fire where it was too dangerous to send firefighters," Marinaro said. Firefighters from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Woodside and Santa Clara County contained the blaze.

The firefighters' efforts did not go unnoticed by visitors.

"They do a wonderful job, and they're really good at it," said Kathleen Whalen of Sunnyvale, who was spending time at the Dish before attending a lecture down the hill at Stanford.

She looked down at the rough dirt clots near her feet, where a fire break had been created by churning up the soil.

In a way it's sad, but fires are part of what we deal with," she said.

Editorial Intern Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at


Like this comment
Posted by lynn
a resident of another community
on Aug 5, 2007 at 11:24 am

arden pennell's work is well-rearched, polished, and balanced. Readers will no doubt appreciate such journalism.

Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 7, 2007 at 5:23 pm

Nora Charles is a registered user.

How are the children (teenagers?) responsible being punished? Perhaps they should be given a tour of the destruction in their wake and also read the riot act by firefighters. Will their parents be responsible for some of the cost? I certainly hope so. I see this every day and am sickened by it.

Like this comment
Posted by moe
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 9, 2007 at 7:29 pm

listen lady, maybe you missed the part where the stanford egghead said fires are good for the environment.

Like this comment
Posted by Get Real
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 24, 2007 at 1:54 pm

true - fires can be good for the environment, BUT surely you must realize that there's a BIG difference between a controlled burn and a wildfire set by juveniles. You did realize that people's homes and lives were in danger due to this fire? One firefighter was treated for exhaustion and smoke inhalation. Going along with your reasoning, perhaps tossing smoldering cigarette butts out of the car window while driving on the 280 should be considering a public service instead of a crime?

Like this comment
Posted by kk
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 28, 2007 at 11:44 am

Hey Moe, Get Real is dead on. Think about it. There are enough random fires caused by nature -- we don't need help from thoughtless or malicious human actions.

It's all sad, but people need to be accountable for their bad behavior. And if others are made aware of that accountability, perhaps they'll think twice before choosing a similar path.