Faced with increasingly drier seasons and hotter weather, San Mateo County leaders encouraged residents to play a productive role in mitigating fire risks and preparing for potential catastrophes.
“The only way for us to address this huge challenge is if we’re all in this together,” Len Materman, CEO of OneShoreline, San Mateo County’s Flood and Sea Level Rise District said during a panel hosted Thursday, June 3, by the organization in partnership with the League of Women Voters.
Over the past five years, California has grown hotter and drier which has compounded decades of human impacts on the environment including fire suppression, population growth and aging infrastructure, Jonathan Cox, deputy chief of Cal Fire’s San Mateo County division, said.
Changing conditions have resulted in more destructive fire seasons, he said, noting strong concern for significant fire potential in late summer and early fall given vegetation lifecycles tracking two to three months ahead of schedule.
Rather than fighting fires, Cox said traditional wildfire responses are now inefficient at stopping the catastrophes. Instead, agencies have been tasked with mass rescue events when responding to wildfires in recent years.
Recognizing the growing risks, Cox said the state is investing substantially into wildfire mitigation work by bolstering mutual aid resources, providing grants to local agencies, supporting vegetation management projects, developing new mapping and supporting evacuation planning.
“There is no one single bullet for what’s going to get us out of this predicament. It’s taken us 100 years to get into this situation between climate change and human impact on the landscape and it’s going to take quite a few years to get out of it,” Cox said.
Cox also noted the work of the San Mateo County Parks Department in reducing fire hazards. Nicholas Calderon, Parks Department director, detailed the county’s five year Wildfire Fuel Management Program made up of 32 projects located across 1,830 acres of the 16,000-acre park system.
Calderon credited the most recent fire season for motivating the county to rethink how it addresses fire fuel mitigation work.
“The CZU Lightning Complex Fire, which was the first wildfire to occur in a county park, really forced us to change our mindset, change our approach to how we’re going to manage fuel loads that are in our parks,” Calderon said.
Through the nearly $19 million effort, the Parks Department will seek to create stronger fuel breaks and fire roads, and remove nonnative, highly combustible and invasive species.
We would love to remove as many from our park system as possible, not only are they a fire risk but they don’t provide ecological value,” Calderon said.
Similarly, Jeremy Dennis, Portola Valley town manager, said the city is considering a ban on the “Flammable Five” including juniper, cypress, acacia, pine and eucalyptus trees.
Kellyx Nelson, executive director of the San Mateo Resource Conservation District, said the county had been working to rewrite its tree removal ordinance and may still be considering doing so. Meanwhile, the RCD is also working with the county to develop a “master permit” which could be shared with others looking to do fuel load reduction inducing hazardous tree removal.
While agencies address public and large swaths of private lands, officials also called on the public to reduce fuel loads around their homes by creating large fuel breaks between 50 and 200 feet and limiting plants near the structure.
Denise Enea, president of FIRE SAFE San Mateo County, also encouraged the public to harden their homes by evaluating the types of fencing, vents, eaves, windows and doors featured on the structures including dog doors.
Residents were also recommended to prepare for emergencies by reviewing all potential evacuation routes, having a plan in place in case of evacuation and knowing one’s zone of residence.
When evacuations are taking place, residents can be informed through a variety of ways including calls, texts, push notifications, emails and social media alerts. Residents can also monitor Zonehaven, a platform partly funded by the county to help monitor and inform the public on fire activity.
“The devastation caused by climate change already and the predictions of future devastations can lead many of us feeling hopeless,” Supervisor Don Horsley said during Thursday’s panel. “It can feel like an uphill race with no end in sight but by working together we can rediscover hope and give ourselves a fighting chance.”
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