- Jeffrey Siegel
Taking Proactive Steps to Protect Los Gatos Homes from Ever-growing Wildfire Threats
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
As I write this post, there are PG&E triggered power outages in several towns, perhaps for days, hitting high-risk communities in the bay area - Los Gatos is named as one of the towns targeted by PG&E. This is a measure taken by PG&E to lower the wildfire risks attributable to their electricity infrastructure which has been the source of ignition for wildfires.
In the event of a wildfire, it’s the residents of the uphill sections of Los Gatos (the WUI) that are the most vulnerable. With high winds, as we learned from the Campfire fire (caused by wind-induced faulty power lines) a wildfire can move so swiftly that there is little defense other than to evacuate quickly, provided the roads aren’t blocked by Waze-directed traffic.
A map published on the town’s website shows the extensive amount of Los Gatos residential property that sits in the wildlife urban interface (WUI), which is the area at greatest risk of wildfire. These would be the homes most likely to, and the first to burn. Looking at the WUI-map is an eye-opening and sobering experience, particularly when noting that the town of Los Gatos has an even higher wildfire risk threat score than Paradise, and that there are wildfires burning in the Santa Cruz mountains surrounding our town every year.
Compounding the problem is the fact that a great many of these WUI-situated homes are historic, meaning built pre-1941. In reality, most were built in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. With their large covered wood porches, dried out wood framing and siding, detailed wood accents, more than a century worth of oil-based paint layers, and other factors – these homes are not only sitting in the WUI, they are by far the most combustible. In the event of a wildfire, these homes will go up like torches, with little time for first-responders to act.
One of the key lessons from the Campfire fire (Paradise), was that the older homes were the most prone to being quickly consumed by the flames. Of the few homes that did survive, they were largely recently built structures, using modern materials and building techniques. Los Gatos adheres to the state’s building codes for new construction, but the oldest, historic homes represent everything not to do when building a fire-resistant home.
All of this together creates the Perfect Storm. Los Gatos has a super-high wildfire risk score for several reasons including a good portion of our town physically in the WUI, high-gusty winds during the wildfire season and older homes that are the most flammable.
It’s important to understand that a single ember from a wildfire a mile away, can easily and quickly travel into our town from the adjacent mountains. That’s exactly what made Paradise in reality not one fire, but thousands of fires. Will this become Los Gatos fate? The eventuality of a wildfire hitting our town grows with each successive year due to climate change. One can reasonably assert that it’s just a matter of time before the inevitable happens. Let’s not forget that a great many of our historic homes and commercial structures perished in fires dating back over a hundred years ago.
And there is only so much that first responders can do as those that perished in Paradise learned. To give first responders a better chance of effectively responding, requires first and foremost, that our homes be fire-resistant rather than being the perfect fuel that our historic homes are today. The good news is that much has been learned over the past decade regarding what retrofits can be made to older homes to make them less prone to ignite, and if they do catch on fire, that it becomes a slow-burn, not an instant conflagration. In the event of a rapidly burning home, besides being incinerated in minutes, it creates a higher fire danger for all the homes around it as the fire spreads to adjoining properties. That was the fate of Paradise when entire streets went up in flames in minutes.
Even worse, there are homes in Los Gatos that have been abandoned, like the house at 94 Ellenwood. There is absolutely nothing to stop that house from becoming a raging inferno in minutes, with its exterior siding removed, exposed old wood framing, windows removed, lack of roofing, and other missing fire safety factors. That house is a sitting duck for a fire, and when a fire hits, this house would not only be rapidly consumed by the flames, it would send embers flying out to all the surrounding homes.
So how does the town of Los Gatos proactively lower its risk of a rampaging wildfire consuming our WUI-based neighborhoods?
According to fire safety experts, the single most effective measure that can be taken is retrofitting these historic homes with the latest fire-retardant materials. In my conversations with many historic homeowners, there is a strong desire to take those actions. Some historic homeowners with the economic means to undertake major renovations have beautifully restored their homes along with bringing them up to current fire code.
But for a majority of homeowners, who lack the financial means to even maintain their homes, and have years of deferred maintenance accumulated, many living on fixed incomes, there is no path forward for fire-protecting their homes. This is a catastrophe just waiting to happen.
Despite this unfortunate situation, there is good news.
There are California historic preservation funds available that could be legitimately applied to fire-protecting Los Gatos homes. If the town council felt that wildfire safety was a priority, they could quickly vote to allow homeowners to access these funds. In effect, it would be the equivalent of creating a Historic Home Fire Protection program. Over a hundred other cities and towns in the state of California have already accessed these funds leaving Los Gatos as perhaps the only sizeable town with a large historic population that has yet to embrace what is widely considered to be California’s most important historic preservation legislation.
In summary, the problem is severe in that it’s both life-threatening and property-threatening, and getting worse each year. What we didn’t know before but we do now, is that Los Gatos is among the highest fire-risk large communities in the state. That there are proactive steps that can be taken now to lower the risk to our highest risk properties – historic homes in the WUI. And that the economic funding, through California’s historic preservation act (Mills Act) is there to get the job done.
The only question that now remains is – does the town council have the wisdom and the political conviction to be proactive? Mayor Leonardis has shown real leadership and made clear his support for taking these proactive life-saving measures. Whether other town council members who also need to cast their votes do is unclear. But this matter will be raised at the October 15th town council meeting. At that meeting, we will be fortunate to have with us Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden as we officially commend him and his organization for their exemplary work on behalf of our town. As a Los Gatos resident who cares about wildfire safety, you are encouraged to come to speak to the importance of this issue to you and your family and to ask the town council to become proactive. We are only victims if we fail to demand of our local government that responsible actions be taken now.
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