OWN WORDS INTERVIEW.
I just got off the phone with Tim Ramirez (11/4/2020), Natural Resources and Lands Management (NRLM) Director for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). As a Coastside resident and CERT trainer, I wanted to know what the SFPUC was doing about fire load reduction on their 23,000-acre Peninsula Watershed.
Tim told me an excellent story of how a public agency can work well internally and with another agency, like Cal Fire. The Peninsula Watershed is a State Responsibility Area, and it is all about preparation.
On August 15th, late at night around 11:15 p.m., there was a vehicle accident near HWY 92 and Canada Road that started a 1.5 acre fire on the Peninsula Watershed. Cal Fire requested a SFPUC staff person join the response, and Watershed Keeper Supervisor Sarah Lenz, who lives on the watershed, reported. After the accident cleared, Sarah headed back to her residence, but kept her radio on given the red flag warning and prediction for lightning strikes. She heard a report on her radio about another fire starting on the Peninsula Watershed, reconnected with Cal Fire staff, and headed up to the ridge to spot and report additional starts. On her way there, she was redirected to yet another fire when she discovered a separate batch of flames and made the first attack with the fire pumper and water on her vehicle. It was now approximately 5 a.m.
Eventually eight separate fires ignited by the lightning started on the SFPUC Peninsula Watershed in the early morning hours of August 16.
Like many landowners in those first few hours, the SFPUC was on their own for a bit, but they had prepared well.
“We had the right people, in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment,” said Ramirez. “All our Watershed Keeper trucks carry water for firefighting purposes, and because we train regularly with Cal Fire and have easily accessed and well-maintained roads, we were able to handle the situation.”
SFPUC staff did eventually get help from local firefighting agencies, and by 11:30 a.m. on August 16, all fires on the Peninsula Watershed were contained. Mop up activities continued through August 19.
The SFPUC watershed is the water source for Half Moon Bay and El Granada. A big fire would cause a lot of erosion and a lot of soils entering our water source, and that is not a good thing. There are also many communities and highways adjacent to the SFPUC watershed, and annual fire break work done by the SFPUC staff protects these areas as well as the watershed.
SFPUC has always had annual plans for fire load reduction in the watershed. And they have always worked closely with Cal Fire and other San Mateo County firefighting organizations and first responders.
But everything was elevated after the August CZU fire. Adjacent communities and wholesale water customers were asking questions. Fortunately, the NRLM staff had presented to their Commission the wildfire risk reduction plans for the Bay Area watersheds in January 2020 as part of their regular budget process, given the heightened awareness due to previous wildfires in the State.
Since August and into November, SFPUC staff are re-doubling their fire load reduction efforts on the Peninsula watershed lands, and continuing to coordinate with Cal Fire and San Mateo County Parks.
“There’s always more work that needs to be done to reduce wildfire risk on the watershed,” said Ramirez.