More than 200 residents received advice on wildfire prevention — such as creating vegetation-free space around their homes and replacing shingle roofs and wooden siding — from a panel of local and state officials at a town hall meeting on wildfires hosted by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, in Portola Valley on June 22.
They also heard about the importance of nailing down evacuation routes and ways to receive messages from fire departments, state emergency agencies and law enforcement.
Panelists included representatives from the Woodside Fire Protection District, the San Mateo County Fire Department and the county Office of Emergency Services, the California Office of Emergency Services, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), and PG&E.
Jonathan Cox, an assistant chief for the San Mateo-Santa Cruz counties division of Cal Fire, which includes the county fire department, made the wildfire threat a little more real by saying that, under the most hazardous conditions, wildfires can spread at a rate of 1 acre per second, making them virtually impossible to stop when they first break out.
Thus, people need to prepare to evacuate at the first warning they receive that a wildfire is coming, Cox said.
“Firefighting is not successful in the initial attack,” he said. “We need to know where the fire is and what direction it’s moving.”
That information made an impression on Mark Ross, a research scientist at Stanford University who was in the audience.
“The firefighters would need to concentrate on getting people out of the way rather than protecting property in a situation like that,” Ross said. “The fire would be generating its own wind.”
Patty Ciesla, executive director of the Santa Clara County Firesafe Council, advised residents to attend evacuation workshops when they are available to learn how to get away from a wildfire.
Ciesla also emphasized the importance of clearing brush and dead trees from around roads that people would use to evacuate. Cal Fire has planned a major fire suppression project this summer along Kings Mountain Road in and near Huddart Park, which will create what’s known as a shaded field break as crews clean up undergrowth while preserving the canopy of trees.
“People in the Camp Fire died in their cars,” she said. “Most people die while they are evacuating. We need to reduce fuel next to roads.”
PG&E Senior Public Safety Specialist Pam Perdue said the utility is in the process of installing new weather stations and high-definition cameras, expanding its tree trimming program around power lines, inspecting 50,000 pieces of equipment and replacing wooden poles with metal poles.
“There are 3,000 employees and contractors doing inspections over 25,000 miles of distribution,” Perdue said.
Although the utility is undergrounding power lines in Paradise, the Northern California town that was wiped out by the Camp Fire last summer, it’s not doing it on a larger scale since it costs $1 million per mile, she said.
The utility has also adopted a power shut-off plan in an effort to prevent sparking power lines from igniting wildfires during periods with high heat, low humidity and wind gusts. PG&E plans to warn residents with alerts 48 hours, 24 hours and just before a power shut-off, although the timing and frequency of the warnings may change depending on weather conditions.
Residents also learned about mutual aid for firefighting. California has been receiving much more aid from out-of-state sources as the number of acres burned statewide has risen from 880,900 in 2015 to 1.8 million in 2018, said Brian Marshall, the fire and rescue chief for the California Office of Emergency Services.
The state has purchased 79 new fire engines that will be delivered next summer that can be used by Cal Fire for in-state or out-of-state emergencies, Marshall said.
During a brief question-and-answer period, Cox said that residents should identify more than one way out in the event of an evacuation.
Berman fielded another question about cancellations of homeowners’ insurance in fire-prone areas by telling people to get in contact with his office about the problem.
Free home fire inspections are available from the county as well as the Woodside Fire Protection District, said Denise Enea, the district’s fire marshal.
In response to another question on generators, Perdue cautioned people who install home generators to hire an electrician to do the work.
“Generators have to be installed correctly to be safe,” she said.
Among those who attended the meeting was Portola Valley resident Jennifer Yousla, who said she found the information useful.
“There was a lot of really good practical advice about making homes safe, including making a 5-foot perimeter around your home,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of the work already, but we’re worried about (nearby conditions) that are not on our land.”
Michelle Rapp, a Portola Valley Ranch resident, said she regularly participates in local evacuation drills in the event of a wildfire.
“We just went through an evacuation exercise on June 6,” she said. “We’re always practicing stuff since we’re next to open space.”
Some Woodside and Portola Valley officials seem resigned to the necessity of possible PG&E power shut-offs to prevent wildfires.
The shut-offs may be more likely in Woodside and Portola Valley because they are the two towns on the so-called “interface” between urban and forested areas in the Bay Area, according to Woodside Fire Protection District Fire Chief Rob Lindner.
“I think it’s a positive move if it is used only in extreme circumstances,” Woodside council member Dick Brown wrote in an email.
Brown suggested that the utility coordinate with the Woodside Fire Protection District to make sure there is “agreement about the severity of the problem, that a shutoff is warranted to prevent a dangerous situation getting worse and that the shutoff is limited to only the most threatened areas.”
Portola Valley Mayor Ann Wengert said she thinks the shut-off strategies are “a short-term fix.”
“On a medium- to longer-term basis, PG&E cannot rely solely on shutoffs to deal with future weather events, but needs to commit significant resources to assessing, repairing and replacing aging wired infrastructure,” she said in an email.
Portola Valley Councilman John Richards said he thinks the reaction in general has been “somewhat supportive, but mixed with a high level of uncertainty.”
Richards suggested that PG&E could calm public concerns about the potential for shut-offs by looking at historical weather data and making “a best guess as to the likelihood of shutoffs in our community.”
Woodside council member Chris Shaw disputed whether the public has a choice if PG&E decides on a particular strategy to reduce wildfire risk.
“If people don’t like it, they’ll like it a whole lot less if their home burns down,” Shaw said in an email. “What if you say ‘You shouldn’t let them turn the power off’ and there’s a fire?”
Woodside Mayor Pro Tem Ned Fluet is also in favor of any steps that could reduce the threat of fire, with one caveat: “I want (PG&E) to provide ample notice so that towns and cities can try to accommodate older and vulnerable populations who would need power for air conditioning and medical devices,” he said.
Woodside Mayor Daniel Yost also emphasized the need for as much notice as possible before a shut-off, adding that he thinks PG&E should fund an electric battery storage incentive program for people with medical needs so they don’t have to purchase “a dirty and expensive diesel generator,” he said in an email.
One question that has come up about the shut-off plan: Why would it take up to 24 hours to restore power once the decision is made to turn it back on?
There is an elaborate visual inspection routine for lines, poles and towers that must be completed once weather conditions change, according to PG&E spokeswoman Andrea Menniti.
“Visual inspections are necessary since circuit breakers, reclosing devices and fuses that are used to detect damage from a winter event are de-energized during a public power shut-off,” she said.
If damage is found, workers will have to isolate the damaged areas from other parts of the system so that those parts can be restored, Menniti said.
“Only after the inspections are complete will it be safe to turn the power back on,” she said