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  • Jeffrey Siegel

How the towns of Paradise & Los Gatos share The Perfect Storm for Wildfire Conditions!

Many of us remember the movie The Perfect Storm in which lives are lost when the seas turn into a nightmare of massive waves created by the perfect combination of weather factors. Like that movie, the town of Paradise was hit by a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that included dry soil from years of drought, high wind conditions, an abundance of vegetation fuel, plus a majority of homes built prior to modern building codes designed to minimize structural ignitability.

The spark was provided by aging PG&E infrastructure, but the forces of mother nature, together with twenty thousand residents living in the wildland urban interface in older homes not retrofitted to current fire standards had no chance of fending off a massive firestorm. The outcome - nearly a hundred lives lost and 10,000 plus homes destroyed. Driving through what’s left of Paradise today resembles an eerie war-zone, with driveways to nowhere, empty swimming pools, a polluted water system, and a community struggling to recover if it ever does. Certainly not the once-beautiful, idyllic California town where so many homes once stood on the outskirts of Chico, home to a major California-state University.

For the neighborhood of Glenridge Park in Los Gatos, the parallels with Paradise are striking, as we also have all the right conditions for a perfect storm of neighborhood-wide consuming fire. What are these conditions?

The Glenridge Park ‘perfect storm’ season is just a few months away. This perfect wildfire storm consists of 1) a very dry drought-worsened winter rain season leaving vegetation ripe for rapid fire consumption, 2) a large number of old historic homes (many dating back to the 1800’s and early 1900’s) built long before the advent of modern building codes, 3) fire-close geography defined as homes situated in the wildland urban interface zone of the Los Gatos mountains nearest the source of many wildfires occurring each summer/fall, 4) perched upon a hilly topological section of town where rapid rain runoff (when it rains) creates extra-dry soil conditions and fierce winds blow through the neighborhood serving as the wings that lift and carry fire embers from forest into residential areas, and 5) where wildfire emergency evacuation routes are routinely blocked by Waze-directed Santa Cruz beach-going traffic. For a potential firestorm, it doesn’t get more perfect than this!

We cannot control the rainfall nor the winds. The weather is clearly beyond our control. But what we can control is significant and produces an outcome-changing difference, increasing survival-ability by limiting the ability of a wildfire to rapidly spread throughout our neighborhood. The two wildfire factors that are within our control are - vegetation fuel and structural ignitability.

Of the two, structural ignitability (the ability for a home to withstand fire) is the single biggest factor in determining the outcome for a neighborhood, according to CalFire and the National Fire Protection Association, which works at the national level to help define building codes related to fire issues.

This perfect storm that’s brewing with growing wildfire destructive powers is precisely what we have today in the Glenridge Park neighborhood of Los Gatos. The extreme risk wildfire threat assessment calls for immediate and effective action to proactively lower the risk factors, as is called out by the Governor’s Wildfire Emergency Proclamation. This proclamation directs regional and local authorities, including town councils to take the imminent threat of wildfires seriously, and to take any and all necessary actions to mitigate those risks. The Los Gatos town council has only fractionally addressed the issue through limited some vegetation management efforts, with funding from the state, such as reducing the vegetation fuel load along highway 17. Yet experience has shown that in Los Angeles wildfires readily jump over 14 lanes of highway. And fire professionals understand that structural ignitability is a far bigger factor in protecting lives and property than vegetation load reduction that’s far removed from the homes most likely to succumb to fire.

This is why Glenridge Park has just become the newest Firewise USA community in America. By taking the initiative to create a fire-wise neighborhood, we are following in the footsteps of Marin County and others who have taken wildfire safety far more seriously than the Los Gatos Town Council. And where citizen-led actions have made a big difference in keeping their entire neighborhood safer.

Let’s not allow ourselves to remain vulnerable to the next wildfire burning in the Santa Cruz mountains. And let’s never forget that numerous prior wildfires whose destructive forces has already burned more than fifty Los Gatos homes sending thousands fleeing for their lives. Given the knowledge of wildfire safety best practices, including structural ignitability mitigation factors laid out in California-state Assembly Bill 38 that was recently passed, and state-funding available to Los Gatos historic (pre-1941) homeowners to retrofit their homes through the state’s historic preservation act, this is one battle that we can absolutely win together. At this time, our greatest roadblock to success is complacency, and a town council whose failure to act on the highest priority fire vulnerabilities leaves our historic neighborhoods dangerously vulnerable to the foreseen dangers in our mountainous backyard.

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