The City may be running the risk of wildfires
Examiner Staff Writer
December 10, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO — Neglect has left nearly a dozen wooded areas in The City thick with underbrush and aging trees, and that has some worried that the region is ripe for a devastating wildfire.
San Francisco is home to several large, wooded areas — from the Presidio to the north to McLaren Park to the south. Many are dangerously overgrown. Those conditions, coupled with decreasing rainfall, unseasonably hot days and a lack of controlled burns in the area — an effective fire-prevention technique — could add up to disaster.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has deemed 11 of The City’s park areas “moderate fire hazard severity zones,” ranked only below “very high” and “high” on the state’s severity scale.
“We have fires every year,” said Franco Mancini, who lives near the 318-acre McLaren Park, which is sandwiched between the Excelsior and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods. “They’re kind of big fires. Every year, the grasslands are ignited in some way or another.”
San Francisco firefighters have extinguished 34 grass or brush fires since Jan. 1, according to Fire Department spokeswoman Lt. Mindy Talmadge. The tally does not count the October fire on Angel Island that consumed 380 acres of grassland — nearly half its vegetation.
Although such larger fires are rare in The City, they can happen “if all the forces of nature are lined up,” said Assistant Deputy Chief Tom Saragusa of the Fire Department.
Those forces include a string of three or four hot days, coupled with San Francisco’s notorious winds and hilly topography, he said.
Ironically, those are the same winds and topography that lead firefighters to say it’s too dangerous to perform controlled burns within city limits, Talmadge said. Experts say controlled burns are an effective fire-prevention tool, since they clear out accumulated growth that could allow wildfires to quickly escalate out of control.
The majority of fire-danger zones identified by state officials are large park properties owned and managed by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Without controlled burns to manage dry grasses and undergrowth, it’s up to Rec and Park staff to trim potential fire fuel on those properties.
For example, the 70-acre Glen Canyon Park has been identified by the state as a moderate fire hazard. The wooded area, like many other city parks, contains homeless encampments and is bordered by homes.
“If required, we cut the grass, but it’s really labor intensive and not usually done,” Rec and Park spokesman Elton Pon said, referring to Glen Canyon’s vegetation management.
Trees — including the notoriously flammable eucalyptus — are only trimmed in cases of imminent threat and hazard, due to staff and funding shortfalls, according to Pon.
Rec and Park does spend $10,000 per year to hire a herd of goats to munch dry foliage in Glen Canyon and Twin Peaks, Pon said.
However, Rec and Park officials could not quantify how much they spend managing vegetation in The City’s other wildland parks, or how often that work is done.
A $185 million neighborhood park bond approved by voters in February includes $5 million for trail restoration and $4 million for tree management in city-owned parks. Some of those funds could help reduce the fire-fuel load in parks tagged as hazards, said Jim Lazarus, vice chair of the Recreation and Park Commission.
“My opinion is that money should target areas that border developed properties,” Lazarus said.
The fire risk is also heightened when temperatures spike.
San Francisco had three three-day stretches of hot temperatures this year, according to Bob Benjamin, forecaster with the National Weather Service. Thermometers spiked above 85 degrees for three days in June, another three in September and three more in November.
Such heat waves are not unusual in The City, Benjamin said.
At the same time, annual rainfall has declined.
Between 2004 and 2006, The City saw annual rainfall totals of more than 30 inches. But since 2006, it has dropped to less than 18 inches per year — similar to statewide conditions that prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a drought in June.
Meanwhile, some locals have taken it into their own hands to clear brush and trails, both for access and for fire safety.
A group calling itself the Mount Sutro Stewards has spent the past two years doing just that on the slopes of the dense, 61-acre eucalyptus forest immediately behind UC San Francisco’s Parnassus campus.
“Mount Sutro has a history of fire documented back to the 1800s,” said group member Craig Dawson. “There have been some recently, but when you consider the proximity of homes, the hospital and student housing, we’ve been fortunate there hasn’t been anything major.”
City not fighting fire with fire
Fire experts know you should fight fire with fire, but San Francisco hasn’t used controlled burns to quell dangerous areas in many years.
Despite dozens of small grass fires each year — and one big blaze this year that torched half of Angel Island — local fire officials say it’s just too dangerous to attempt controlled burns in The City’s open-space parks.
“We have done it in the past, but with our topography, the hills and the wind, the Fire Department has decided it’s just too risky,” Lt. Mindy Talmadge, spokeswoman for the Fire Department said.
Controlled, or prescribed, burns are intentionally set by a fire agency to pre-empt a wildfire by reducing flammable brush to cinders.
Such burns are common among other fire agencies in the Bay Area, including San Mateo and Marin counties.
“Fire is natural to the environment and it’s good for thinning out the vegetation in a natural way,” said Ernylee Chamlee, chief of wildland fire prevention engineering for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “I think more agencies would like to do them more, but they’re not easy to do.”
Controlled burns are more challenging when there are homes nearby, according to Chamlee, and that’s the case with every open space in The City.
After years of annual fires in McLaren Park, nearby resident Franco Mancini approached the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to discuss the possibility of controlled burns in The City.
“They said it was fine, just get concurrence from your local fire department,” he said.
The Fire Department, however, has persisted in saying no.
That leaves the process of using fire to reduce fuel loads in local parks to the whims of Mother Nature and accidental blazes, according to Stan Kaufman, who lives on Mount Davidson.
“Fire management has devolved to the drunk teenage high schoolers who are out there shooting off fireworks,” he said. “Nobody does it responsibly, so it winds up happening irresponsibly.” — Beth Winegarner
Major blazes waiting to happen?
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has deemed 11 of San Francisco’s park areas “moderate fire hazard severity zones.”
– Glen Canyon
– The Presidio
– Maritime National Historic Park
– Interior Park Belt
– Lincoln Golf Course and Lands End
– Mount Davidson
– Stern Grove
– McLaren Park
– Candlestick Point
– Park lands east and south of Lake Merced
– Mount Sutro
Source: Cal Fire
Tips to make your home safer from wildfires:
– Use ignition-resistant construction for roof, assemblies, gutters, vents, desks, exterior walls, exterior windows
– Install residential sprinklers
– Make sure that electric service lines, fuse boxes and circuit breaker panels are installed and maintained per code
– Remove dead leaves and needles
– Remove hanging dead branches and keep them 10 feet from chimney
– Create a defensible space around home of 100 feet, which is required by law
– Remove all flammable vegetation within 30 feet immediately surrounding home, including woodpiles
– Create a reduced-fuel zone in the remaining 70 feet or to property line
– Use care operating equipment such as lawnmowers when clearing vegetation; one small spark may start a fire
Source: Cal Fire