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Wildfire prevention has always been top of mind for San Mateo County officials, but the rampant fires of 2020 have accelerated their efforts even more.

Jonathan Cox, deputy chief of Cal Fire’s San Mateo County Division, said the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August 2020 were a big wake-up call for them. The fires burned more than 86,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, making them the biggest fire of the last 100 years for Cal Fire’s San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit.

“The thing that burns in my memory is the Sunday we got up in the helicopter to do a reconnaissance flight event, and just seeing not only how many fires we had but how remote they were,” Cox said. “And then being able to look across the Bay and know that your neighbors also had fires burning. I’ll never forget that, because it was that moment of complete overwhelm in recognizing the scope and the gravity of the situation and knowing things were going to get worse before they got better.”

Lightning strikes had sparked multiple fires across the state, burning over a million acres and straining resources for Cal Fire and other response agencies.

“Our fuel moistures are already low. We got very low precipitation compared to what we need, on top of drought … We just need people to remember that within a couple weeks we’re probably going to be right back where we were last summer in fighting fires.”

Jonathan Cox, , Cal Fire

Cox said he had never seen so many fires going at the same time.

Since then, Cal Fire, local fire districts and other agencies in San Mateo County have sped up projects to reduce the threat of wildfires across the county.

These projects include controlled burns and fuel management efforts like thinning forests and removing ignitable vegetation from near roadways and evacuation routes.

Cox highlighted the importance of fuel reduction as it is one of the factors that we can control when it comes to preventing wildfires.

On the other hand, weather is the one variable firefighters can’t control and dry or windy conditions can increase wildfire risk. Cox encouraged people to take red flag days seriously as that is when the region is most vulnerable to wildfires.

“We’re facing another dire year at the moment,” he said. “Our fuel moistures are already low. We got very low precipitation compared to what we need, on top of drought … We just need people to remember that within a couple weeks we’re probably going to be right back where we were last summer in fighting fires.”

Maintenance crews remove stands of eucalyptus trees in Junipero Serra Park in San Bruno. County parks director Nicholas Calderon said many areas of overly dense forest need treatment after years of being left alone. (Photo courtesy of County of San Mateo)

Planning an evacuation route

Denise Enea, executive director of the county’s nonprofit fire prevention committee Fire Safe San Mateo County, encouraged people to plan their evacuation routes ahead of time.

“You know if you live in a wildfire area. And you know if your road is narrow and maybe there’s one way in,” Enea said. “So really the burden is on you to educate yourself and your family. In the event of an emergency, you need to know a couple of different evacuation routes.”

Several of Fire Safe San Mateo County’s projects involve clearing evacuation routes by reducing fire fuel near roads.

“Many of our evacuation routes are not up to par in terms of being safe,” Enea said. “There’s fuel encroaching into the roadway, a lot of overhang, and it would become a very dangerous, if not unpassable, route.”

Last month, the county used Measure K sales tax funds to remove underbrush and saplings like eucalyptus from a stretch of Guadalupe Canyon Parkway on the edge of San Bruno Mountain. And they will continue to thin and chip at vegetation along Skyline Boulevard, also known as state Highway 35.

Enea said the group applied for a grant from the state’s Fire Safe Council to improve evacuation routes throughout the county, especially in high-risk areas.

Enea also encouraged people to prepare their property. One way is by creating defensible space, or a “buffer” between buildings and the vegetation surrounding it. This helps slow or stop wildfire spread.

“Have your property ready now. Don’t wait for the wildfire,” Enea said. “You can’t cut your brush and your trees while the wildfire is here. You have to do it years and months ahead of time and then you have to maintain that.”

Even as projects proceed, there’s a lot more work to be done to maintain fire safety and to treat the many acres of land across the county.

Director of San Mateo County Parks Nicholas Calderon said that there’s a lot of overly dense forest that needs treatment after years of being left alone.

Crews remove underbrush and small eucalyptus trees along Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, just east of two Daly City elementary schools. (Photo courtesy of County of San Mateo)

Fuel reduction

After the CZU fires, the county came up with a five-year wildfire fuel management plan, which includes 32 projects across the county.

One of these involves reducing fire fuels and improving forest health at Wunderlich and Huddart parks in Woodside. The project is a partnership between County Parks and the San Mateo Resource Conservation District, with funding from the state’s Climate Investments Program.

Calderon stressed that each of their projects is important because so much park land is located at the wildland urban interface, which is where the natural environment and our built environments meet.

Those interfaces are especially vulnerable to wildfires.

“What’s at risk is the safety of our residents. What’s at risk is our communities that people have grown up and live in. What’s at risk is these natural environments that support wildlife and support rare and threatened species and that we’re supposed to be working to steward for future generations,” Calderon said.

The county offers more information on wildfire prevention efforts on its website.

Cal Fire also offers more information about wildfire readiness.