Watchful eye
County emergency officials are dedicating resources toward fire prevention, but experts say those efforts would not preclude an event like the CZU Lightning Complex fires, which began in August. Adam Pardee / Review

San Mateo County leaders are renewing their efforts to prevent wildfires after a record-breaking fire season in the state of California — including the mountainous areas of the county. A study session hosted by the county Board of Supervisors last week has prompted the board to take action to improve interagency coordination and identify new funding for fuel load reduction efforts.

The session, featuring presentations from CalFire Division Chief Rich Sampson, San Mateo Resource Conservation District Director Kellyx Nelson and County Parks Department Director Nicholas Calderon, reviewed local fire history, fuel overload concerns like eucalyptus trees, and best practices for future projects.

Each of the county leaders agreed that additional staff, funding and decisive action is needed to work toward eight priority areas identified by Supervisor Don Horsley, who represents the Coastside. On Tuesday, the supervisors established a committee to further oversee mitigation planning.

“The cost of prevention is high ... but the cost of doing nothing is immeasurably higher,” Horsley said. “The issue of fuel load is not one that any entity can take on alone.”

Also announced last week is a new effort by the county Parks Department to begin planning fuel reduction projects on a five-year timeline, as opposed to year by year. Calderon said he hopes the wider scope will improve efficiency and make the best use of funding, as well as allow the county to commit to returning and re-treating high-risk areas.

“We need to be taking big, bold action that’s backed by the science,” Calderon said.

Vegetation management helps firefighters do their jobs, Sampson said, and more work is needed to cut back the county’s fire danger. He proposed long-term funding for projects like SMC Fire Safe Council’s Chipping Program and investment in regular, organized forest management to create a buffer around homes and roads.

“Defensible space is our main mitigation strategy,” Sampson said.

Sampson stressed, however, that the CZU Lightning Complex fire in August would not have been prevented by any of these measures.

“We can't mitigate a fire like we just had,” Sampson said. “All we can do is stay ahead of the fire and try to get the public out of the way when the fire takes off like that until the parameters change.”

As a result, Horsley hopes to prioritize creating a local ordinance to enforce vegetation management, identifying and maintaining temporary refuge areas in the case of an evacuation, expanding the chipping program, and supporting residents who have lost their fire insurance.

Nelson’s exploration of the RCD’s role in fire mitigation prompted additional county priorities, including streamlining permitting processes and eradicating eucalyptus growth, particularly on the Coastside. Her group is pursuing mitigation projects, from prescribed burns to fire breaks, while prioritizing the Coastal ecosystem.

“Our focus is on long-term forest endurance and health,” Nelson said.

Nelson and RCD Program Manager Sheena Sidhu made a similar presentation at the Midcoast Community Council meeting last week, emphasizing the need for coordination. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved the new committee chaired by Horsley and Supervisor David Canepa, along with $150,000 to expand the chipper program.

“Let’s roll up our sleeves and let’s go,” Supervisor Carole Groom said.

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