With another dangerous wildfire season on the horizon, the Palo Alto Fire Department is teaming up with the Santa Clara County Fire Department and Los Altos Hills to fully staff its foothills fire station between June 15 and the end of October.
Under an agreement that the City Council unanimously approved on Tuesday, the city and the county will take turns in providing staffing at Fire Station 8, with Palo Alto providing firefighters for the first two weeks of the agreement and the two agencies then rotating on a monthly basis. Los Altos Hills County Fire District will provide funding for the staffing in the foothills under the one-year agreement, which could be extended for four additional years.
In approving the deal, fire officials and council members alluded to last year's devastating wildfire season, which scorched more than 4 million acres across the state, and the ongoing drought, which is fueling predictions of an even deadlier season this year. As such, the agreement calls for fire officials to staff Station 8 earlier and more consistently than they had in the past.
Fire Deputy Chief Kevin McNally said that historically the city had staffed Station 8 between July 1 and Oct. 31, with three firefighters taking 12-hour shifts. But because of budgetary constraints, the city hasn't provided full-time staffing at the foothills station since 2015. Instead, it provided staffing during "red flag days" in which dry and windy conditions make the area more vulnerable to wildfire and on fire danger days. In 2020, this amounted to 17 days, which is more than in years past, McNally said.
Conditions are expected to be just as bad, if not worse, in the coming months, according to city staff. A new report from the Fire Department notes that this past January was recorded as one of the driest Januaries in California's history.
Acting Fire Chief Brian Glass of Santa Clara County fire told the council Tuesday that the partnership allows the agencies to work together on protecting numerous jurisdictions in the area, including Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills and the Montebello, Rancho San Antonio and Los Trancos open space preserves.
"Wildfire has absolutely no ability to discern jurisdiction," Glass said.
The council enthusiastically supported the agreement. While council member Greg Tanaka questioned whether this is really a "good deal" and suggested that it's not clear which agency will get the larger workload out of this agreement, his colleagues all supported moving ahead with the partnership. Vice Mayor Pat Burt said the city should be doing everything it can to protect itself from the looming wildfire threat, including banning barbecues at Foothills Park and removing grass in vulnerable areas. The conditions in open space areas are already "tinder dry," he said.
"We're one match away from a big event, and I think we need to be (at) full-court press. … If we don't do everything we can now, and something were to happen — there's no do-over," Burt said.
His colleagues agreed and noted that increased firefighter presence will not only help the city and the county mitigate the fire danger, but will also provide more medical responders to the area at a time when more residents are visiting open space preserves. Council member Alison Cormack noted that Foothills Nature Preserve and other nature preserves in the region have all seen an increase in visitation.
According to staff, Foothills Park saw its visitation increase by 322% in the period between January and April of this year, compared to 2020, as the city moved last year to expand access to the 1,400-acre preserve off Page Mill Road.
"I think it's going to be great that during this summer, when people are excited to get out and go places, that we'll have that medical service be able to reach people more promptly," Cormack said.
Council member Greer Stone, whose mother was displaced last year after her home was destroyed in a fire, also supported the new agreement and pointed to both the hazardous conditions and rising visitation numbers at nature preserves.
"The drought conditions we faced last year have only worsened," Stone said. "We're going to be seeing an increased use of our community's open spaces with the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, opening up of the economy. We're just going to have more and more people wanting to come out."