Image-fire prep

State fire officials have been using controlled burns, like this one in El Granada in 2019, and are warning homeowners to create defensible space around their own homes before the 2021 fire season begins in earnest. Review file photo

Experts warned at an online gathering last week that the danger of “the new wildfire reality” is part of life on the coast now. They also said there are things property owners can do to mitigate the concern.

Thursday’s forum was called “Wildfire Risk and Resilience Climate Change Risk” and it was sponsored by San Mateo County Flood and Sea Level Rise Resiliency District, also known as OneShoreline, and co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Tracy Clark of the League of Women Voters introduced the panelists, beginning with Lee Materman of One Shoreline. Materman said wildfire impacts are being reduced through the use of fire-resistant building materials.

San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, who is on the board of OneShoreline, spoke of last year’s devastating wildfires in San Mateo County and across the state.

“This is the painful truth of the realities of climate change. We are seeing hotter and drier days and lightning strikes unlike anything we have experienced before,” he said. “The most impactful work will be done together. The county will meet the challenge.”

Maryann Derwin, mayor of Portola Valley, is also a OneShoreline board member. She said the wildfires have made home insurance an important part of her life. She had trouble getting home insurance until she cleared brush to establish defensible space around her property and installed sprinklers. She encouraged all to learn more about their own evacuation routes and to become more fire safe in their own homes and businesses.

Jonathan Cox, Cal Fire deputy fire chief in San Mateo County, painted a grim picture of what he called “the new wildfire reality.” He called 2020 the worst California fire season after three consecutive bad fire seasons; 15 of the worst 20 fires have occurred since 2015.

“Climate change plus human impact equals more fires and more destruction more frequently,” he said. “Tactics have to change. We have an action plan we released that includes more inspections and mitigation measures. There is not one thing that is going to get us out of this.

“Prepare your home and ask about your neighbor,” he said.

Nicholas Calderon, director, San Mateo County Parks, said the department has a wildfire management program that includes building defensible space between parkland and residents. That will be done in Pacifica at San Pedro Valley County Park.

“We saw how a fuel break can be effective,” he said.

Retired fire marshal Denise Enea, who is president of Fire Safe San Mateo County, said people have to change building materials to use those that are fire resistant. Wood siding is vulnerable to radiant heat and embers. Keep clearance around the house. Make sure everything stored in a basement or attic is not combustible. Mulch can be flammable. Use it only on plants away from the house.

“We have to change the paradigm of how we build. The roof is the most vulnerable part of your house. They easily ignite. Debris falls on your roof,” she said. “Embers can travel airborne. It can be anything.”

Try to avoid having a wood shake roof, she said. Fireproof vents, fences and doors should be installed. Windows should be double pane. Skylights should have metal screens on them.

“Assess your home and think about the vulnerability, then your home can survive,” she said.

In a question-and-answer session led by Ora Chaiken of the League of Women Voters, a question was asked about land use zoning changes that could be made to improve resilience to wildfires. Jeremy Dennis, town manager of Portola Valley, said the state is giving cities “inconsistent” messages about encouraging housing development as new maps for fire severity zones addressed in insurance policies don’t fit with regional development plans.

What is being done to evaluate evacuations in Coastside communities?

“Unfortunately, we are saddled with the infrastructure we have,” said Cox. “We would work with law enforcement partners to evaluate large areas very early. If we cannot move people to the south and east and they can’t stay in their homes, we would use Pillar Point Harbor or the Half Moon Bay Airport on an emergency basis. This scenario goes through our minds.”

Cox urged residents to check out to find more than one way out in an emergency.

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