The Bay Area, including the Midpeninsula, at great risk for a large fire similar to the Camp Fire in Butte County, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesman said.
The Bay Area is currently vulnerable to a possible fire that could spread into residential areas because of low humidity, dry vegetation and light winds, Cal Fire spokesman Jim Crawford said.
"We've had some pretty extreme conditions in the last month. It's never really changed," he said, noting the sustained, offshore winds that bring drier air.
The relative humidity in the Los Altos/Palo Alto mountainous areas has recently been as low as 16 percent and as high as 42 percent, depending on the time of day, according to National Weather Service National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data. But the historical November average humidity is about 68 percent. Even more concerning, the vegetation or "fuel" moisture in the past week was only 5-7 percent — exceedingly dry — according to NOAA.
Local foothills and the Santa Cruz Mountains have a similar fuel load and topography as that near the town of Paradise. Hilly canyons there channelled winds and increased the wind speeds to carry the fire, Crawford said.
"We have places that are similar to that, with roads and houses on ridge tops and in valleys and canyons. When you look west of the (Interstate) 280 area in Palo Alto and unincorporated areas such as around Stevens Creek, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, these places are very fire prone. In conditions like this, the fuels are primed to burn," he said.
If a wildfire breaks out in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Cal Fire would immediately respond, Crawford said. It has two local units: Santa Clara and San Mateo-Santa Cruz. The Santa Clara Unit, headquartered in Morgan Hill, covers Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties and the western portions of San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties; the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit covers the area from San Francisco to Watsonville.
Cal Fire has "cooperative fire-protection agreements" with Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, which provide equipment and staffing. And almost every regular fire department has a coordinated response arrangement with Cal Fire, he said. The agency works in an "alliance" with 14 fire departments in Santa Clara County, including NASA Ames, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara County Fire Department. Cal Fire's San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit works with 20 fire departments, including Menlo Park and Woodside fire protection districts.
"No one department can do it by themselves," he said of fighting wildfires.
When the call comes, more than 500 firefighters from the two Cal Fire units are available to fight a wildland fire, Crawford said. More personnel can be deployed from other areas if needed.
The agency's first attack will take place on the ground rather than by air.
"Our goal is to catch all fires at less than 10 acres," he said.
Statewide, Cal Fire's jurisdiction typically includes zones where a fire would threaten state lands, but in the Bay Area, it responds to fires in virtually all of the wildlands. Its mission is to protect watershed lands, whether publicly or privately owned, he said. The agency has worked with Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, and it has responded to fires on Stanford University lands, he said.
Cal Fire also has air tactical bases in the north bay near Santa Rosa and one in Hollister, he said. The bases house fixed-wing aircraft and are spaced so that any location can be reached within 20 minutes. Aircraft from Hollister would reach a Palo Alto fire within 12 to 15 minutes from the time the agency receives a call. Three planes out of either location could respond. Two would carry retardant — a combination of water, clay and fertilizer. The water cools down the fire; the clay and other materials help keep the fire from spreading, he said.
The planes can each make as many as two fire-retardant drops before returning to the base to reload.
A third plane carries an air-tactical team, which acts like air-traffic control to guide the drops, Crawford said. If needed, Cal Fire can send an additional three aircraft from the Santa Rosa base and from other areas.
Helicopters that make water drops are also part of Cal Fire's arsenal. They fly out of the Alma Helitack, a base for helicopters near Highway 17 in Los Gatos. These aircraft can be in Palo Alto within six minutes, Crawford said. Unlike fixed-winged aircraft, which must return to base to reload, the helicopters can use a long snorkel to suck up water from a nearby lake or small pond, he said.
But the Santa Clara Unit has significant challenges in the area it covers, according to Cal Fire. The wildlands are adjacent to some of the most populous areas in the state. Controlled burns, the most economical means of reducing vegetation, are difficult to do on a large scale because there are no longer meaningful buffers between urban and wildland areas. Cal Fire has a number of programs and offers grants for fire prevention, but methods such as chipping and brush removal are expensive and time consuming, Crawford said.
Because of human encroachment, the risk for loss is also great. Crawford said he is deeply concerned by those liabilities.
"When I think of all of the assets at risk, it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. We've been very fortunate not to have had a large wildland fire here," he said.
But he predicted that a devastating wildfire in Palo Alto, Woodside, Los Altos Hills and other local open space areas is "inevitable," and it will likely come with losses of homes and businesses and, potentially, life.
The Cal Fire Santa Clara jurisdiction had one of the state's most devastating fires in 1991. The Tunnel Fire in the Oakland Hills killed 25 people (prior to the Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in state history, the Griffith Park Fire of 1933, killed 29). The Oakland fire ranks as the third most damaging in terms of destroyed structures, according to Cal Fire data.
Environmental changes are likely to continue the trend of more costly and deadly fires in California, according to Crawford.
"Until we see a change in our climate, that won't be the exception. It will be the rule," he said.
Since humans cause 95 percent of wildland fires, the public can be a big part of fire prevention, he said. Cal Fire currently has burn ban in place, so residents should not have fires outside or have a barbecue other than with a propane tank. People should not use mechanical tools such as mowers, grinders and weed whackers. Right now is not the time to start clearing the overgrowth with a sense of urgency. Crawford said residents should wait until conditions improve and then clear a defensible space around their homes.
He recommended joining a local county Fire Safe Council, which has chipping services to reduce fuel and other fire-prevention programs. (In Santa Clara County, visit sccfiresafe.org.) Residents should have a plan for their family and an evacuation plan.
If a fire does start, it's important to leave if one isn't sure about conditions even if residents haven't yet received an evacuation order, he said.
"If you are a person with a harder time getting around or are disabled, evacuate earlier," he said.