With scorching summer weather and fire season here, Belmont is considering the designation of a large portion of its hills as very high risk to ensure those who live or own land in the area are working to prevent forest fires.
The Belmont Fire Department is proposing an ordinance to establish the sprawling San Juan Canyon and portions of the Western Hills as wildland-urban interface, or WUI. The designation applies to areas where buildings are in close proximity to heavily vegetated open space, often on a steep terrain, and could be challenging for firefighters to manage during a wildfire, according to a staff report.
Approximately 27 acres of the San Juan Canyon will be the city’s obligation after the council purchased the land in 2009 with the intent of designating it as open space.
The department wants to designate hillside residential zones between Hillcrest Drive and Marsten Avenue, and Ralston Avenue and Bishop Road as a very high fire hazard severity zones, said Belmont Building Official Mark Nolfi.
“The issues of wildland fires weighs heavily on the fire departments’ minds right now, what with the drought and what’s been going on in San Diego. Local fire departments believe this area has been really lucky that they haven’t experienced something like the Oakland Hills fire. That could very easily happen to any of the WUI communities in the Bay Area and there are several of us. San Carlos, Belmont, Hillsborough, these are areas that were designated wildland-urban interface by the state, by the state fire marshal,” Nolfi said.
After the devastating Oakland Hills Fire in 1991, where 25 people were killed and thousands of homes were destroyed, the state passed legislation that directed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to map areas of significant hazards and devise various mitigation strategies to reduce the risk of fires, according to the report.
Deputy Fire Chief Michael Gaffney said the high risk zoning designation is two-fold. It would require new construction to be built with materials and construction practices that are resistant to fire and it would require landowners to maintain their vegetation by keeping grass mowed and trees trimmed, Gaffney said.
When Cal Fire was in the process of mapping the state, this portion of Belmont wasn’t included, Gaffney said. Cal Fire designated most of the Western Hills, however, perhaps as an oversight or because it was unfamiliar with local geography, the San Juan Canyon and pockets of the hills were skipped over, Gaffney said.
The majority of the Western Hills are built out and only one property has been constructed since Cal Fire’s mapping, according to the report.
If the city decides the San Juan Canyon faces a very high risk of wildfires, building regulations would only apply to new construction, however, vegetation management would be required for existing property owners, Nolfi said.
There are at least 100 homes and many undeveloped parcels within the area and Nolfi estimates only a handful of new homes would be built in the San Juan Canyon in the coming years.
The city currently owns about 27 acres in the canyon after the council approved the purchase of 35 acres for $1.5 million. After selling off 8 acres, the council has since worked to try and preserve it as open space in perpetuity.
City Manager Greg Scoles said the zoning is about correcting Cal Fire’s map but, with fire season approaching, the fire department wants to push the designation soon.
Gaffney said the department has moved to designate this land because its previous designation as high risk expired at the end of 2013.
The new designation would conform the entire area and affect how some will need to maintain their properties, Gaffney said.
People will need to create a defensible space between heavy vegetation and buildings, separate vegetation from fuels and other typical landscape maintenance work, Gaffney said. When planting new landscapes it’s also best to pick native species, he added.
Although it’s important for those who live or own property in areas that have a very high risk of wildfire to maintain their landscape, it requires uprooting vegetation, Gaffney said. Trees and root systems help prevent erosion so when it rains, and it will rain, it helps prevent landslides, Gaffney said.
Nolfi said staff came before the City Council in 2012 to designate a larger portion from Ralston Avenue to San Mateo and Alameda de las Pulgas to State Route 92 as very high risk, however, the council felt the area was too broad. This time, staff has only incorporated areas that are immediately impacted, Nolfi said.
“We also feel that it’s a responsibility that the city has to their citizens,” Nolfi said. “That they protect them as much as possible.”
The City Council will hear the proposed ordinance at a meeting 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 10 at City Hall, One Twin Pines Lane.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106