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In commemoration of Earth Day this week, Santa Clara County leaders gathered to share how the county is preparing for what they call an environmental “triple threat,” and what residents can do to get ahead of it.

The triple threat at hand: drought, wildfires and bad air quality.

And they are all interconnected.

With the low amounts of rainfall, the region faces looming threats of drought, which increases threats of wildfires, which in turn impacts air quality.

“We’re already on the offense in all three areas,” County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said. “We’re trying to do is get ahead of the problems because we know we know we can’t go through what we did last year.”

“Drought conditions and changing climate have caused more intense and longer dry seasons, suppressing vegetation, and has made our states susceptible to devastating wildfires.”

Mike Matheson, Santa Clara County Fire battalion chief

But Chavez, along with other leaders from County Fire, Santa Clara Valley Water and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, fear that this year my be the worst yet.

This is because Northern California is experiencing its third driest year on record, with only 66 percent of its average snowpack.

“Eight of the last 10 years have been below average rainfalls and fuels have had little time to recover,” said Santa Clara County Fire Battalion Chief Mike Matheson. “Drought conditions and changing climate have caused more intense and longer dry seasons, suppressing vegetation, and has made our states susceptible to devastating wildfires.”

Matheson said last year’s wildfire season was a perfect example of the impacts of climate change. The CZU Lightning Complex, which burned in Santa Clara County’s east foothills, ranked third in the state’s worst wildfires.

By mid-November of 2020, the region experienced 900 wildfires that year, Chavez said.

“Depending on where we get our starts, I would expect to see the same type of fire behavior, aggressive fire behavior and heavier fuels, early in the season,” Matheson said.

That means wildfire season could start as early as the first week of May and last until November.

Creating a Zonehaven from catastrophe

To get ahead of the potentially devastating impacts, the state and CalFire created a new evacuation system using Zonehaven technology that would help residents know how close they are to threats like wildfire, mudslides or even an active shooter, the best evacuation routes and locate the nearest evacuation centers.

The Zonehaven system is expected to be ready for Santa Clara County by mid-Summer, Matheson said.

County fire is also offering resources to help residents prepare for the event of a fire or evacuation.

“Despite the extensive and coordinated efforts underway to protect and prepare our community, we cannot do this alone,” County Fire Spokesperson Luisa Rapport said.

Rapport urged residents to take advantage of county fire resources and sign up for county fire webinars and Santa Clara County Alerts as well as sign up for the “nationally recognized Ready Set Go program that takes residents through the simple steps necessary to prepare their homes and their families for wildfire.”

Matt Keller, a spokesperson for Santa Clara Valley Water, also said residents’ actions in the next months were paramount in stopping the county from falling into a drought.

This week, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought in Sonoma and Mendocino counties and put water restrictions on other counties that were close to being in a drought.

Santa Clara County is still in the clear for now, but if water levels continue to decrease, Valley Water could also place water use restrictions or hike prices.

So, to prevent all those things, the water district offers several rebate and incentive programs to help residents reduce water consumption, stop leaks that waste water and make showers, washing machines and even lawns more drought ready.

Keller noted that already those programs have been proven effective. Since the county’s last drought in 2017, residents were able to reduce water consumption by 20 percent.

Santa Clara Valley Water has also invested in better technology and infrastructure.

Keller pointed specifically to the Anderson dam seismic retrofit project that will keep residents safe from overflow or flooding and will increase the county’s water storage capacity.

“That’s important because we have to bring a lot of water inside Santa Clara County to meet demands here and make sure that our groundwater supplies are healthy,” Keller said. “We import about 50 percent of our water here.”

So better infrastructure means more water storage and more efficient water delivery to residents.

Clearing the air

A similar kind of work is also happening at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, its CEO Jack Broadbent said.

Broadbent said the district developed a comprehensive strategy to reduce the impacts of wildfires and subsequent smoke, called the Wildfire Air Quality Response Program.

Part of that program was lobbying the state to support legislation that provides local governments with funding to ventilation projects and clean air centers for vulnerable populations, which recently passed.

“Approximately $5 million will be made available to cities, school districts in impacted communities, county emergency management authorities and disaster response organizations,” Broadbent said. “These will be instrumental in protecting public health in our most vulnerable populations.

Broadbent also noted a recent partnership with Red Cross to provide better air filtration to wildfire evacuation centers.

The air district also teamed up with the Regional Asthma Prevention Management Program to provide filtration units to MediCal recipients with asthma.

And Santa Clara County Supervisors are launching a very similar initiative as well.

This week, supervisors unanimously voted to create a $10 million air filtration grant program that would provide air filtration systems and installation services to small businesses and nonprofits impacted by COVID.

Chavez, who proposed the grant idea, said she hopes it will be ready for people to apply by June.

Wildfire resources by County Fire can be found on the district’s website.

County Fire’s Ready Set Go Program will take place on April 27 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Zoom. Residents interested in seeing the presentation can register online.