SF Fire Department Busts Some Myths

Deputy Fire Chief Mark Gonzales smRecently, Supervisor Norman Yee called a hearing of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee to find out how prepared San Francisco was to deal with fires in brush and forest. The San Francisco Fire Department busted some myths we’ve heard all too often.

MYTH #1:  The forests of San Francisco – in particular those on Mount Sutro and Mount Davidson – are a fire hazard.  Vegetation fires are 12-13 times more likely to occur in grass and brush than in forests. And importantly –  in the north and west of the city, the fog protects it by adding moisture. The south-east is more vulnerable to vegetation fires, particularly around the freeways. (But the real fire danger in San Francisco is from structure fires because of closely-placed wooden houses, not so much from vegetation fires.)

MYTH #2: As city fire-fighters, SFFD wouldn’t know how to respond to a forest fire. Actually, SFFD have 200 fire-fighters trained to fight vegetation fires. This myth is a quarter-century out of date.

MYTH #3: SFFD doesn’t have the equipment or information to fight vegetation fires. Actually,  SFFD has special resources including four maneuverable “mini-pumpers” for fighting outside fires. And it has a mutual aid agreement with other cities and can call on their resources if needed.

MYTH #4: San Francisco’s Wildland Urban Interface is a very high fire hazard severity zone. No, it’s not. It’s not technically a Wildland Urban Interface (though there are some pockets) and the whole of San Francisco has a “moderate” fire hazard severity rating (that’s CALFIRE’s lowest rating).

We attended the hearing, and were impressed by SFFD’s well-planned arrangements. After an introduction from Supervisor Norman Yee who convened the hearing and Fire Chief Joanna Hayes-White who stressed that SFFD was prepared for vegetation fires, Deputy Chief Mark Gonzales gave a detailed presentation on where they happened and how SFFD handled it. This was followed by a talk about  prevention from Lieutenant Mary Shea, (mainly weed-abatement in vacant lots and similar). The Department of Emergency Services’ Bijan Karimi  described preparedness,  to help affected families stay safe and return to normalcy in the event of any disaster. Then Curtis Itson, UCSF’s fire marshal, spoke specifically about Sutro Forest, and finally there were some comments from the public – including a singer!

WHERE THE OUTSIDE FIRES ARE

San Francisco’s main concern is actually more with structure fires, because as Deputy Chief Gonzales said,  “…we have wood buildings in the districts, and they’re all next to each other.”

However, there are some calls for outside fires. They tend to be concentrated around the south and east of the city. Because of the fog, the north and west of the city (i.e., areas that include Mount Sutro Forest and Mount Davidson) are generally moist and not a concern. The focus for outside fires is in the drier South east part of San Francisco: Hunter’s Point, McLaren Park.

grass and outside fire calls - SFFD

From the presentation by Deputy Chief Mark Gonzales:

“… we have fog and even during the drought the rest of the city, the west and the northwest gets the fog. The best weather is in Hunters Point, southeast, so that’s where it’s driest.  One of the concerns is Mclaren park.  So the four mini-pumpers are in that area. We have front line stations in the city.  A lot of those companies have been trained in wild land operations, and the chief mentioned that we have over 200 firefighters that do that.”

The open weedy area around freeways are also a concern. Thrown cigarettes and occasional campfires may account for ignition. He said: “…actually there is a big correlation if you noticed near the freeways… all along and open patches of lands that we respond to, to knock those out.”

When there are vegetation fires, they are mostly in grass and brush. The data the Deputy Fire Chief showed indicated that in the last three years,  fires in grassland and/or brush were 12-13 times more likely than fires in forested areas/ wild lands.

He also pointed out that SFFD did have the resources to fight vegetation fires:

  • Four “mini-pumpers” – small maneuverable trucks for fighting outside fires (as well as operating in crowded conditions). They can go off-road and carry special equipment for fighting vegetation fires.
  • Two hundred firefighters with training in fighting vegetation fires, unlike 20-25 years ago when it had few if any. In fact, 30 of SFFD’s people were deployed to help fight the Butte fire and the Valley fire in other parts of California.
  • There’s a mutual aid arrangement in place that would allow SFFD to call for help if it faced an outside fire it could not control with its own resources. The people it would call on would be at least as well-trained as SFFD’s own fire-fighters – possibly more so because they are from hotter less built-up areas where they experience more outside fires.

NOT A WILDLAND URBAN INTERFACE, AND ONLY MODERATE HAZARD

Lieutenant Mary Shea, who is responsible for Prevention, started by pointing out that San Francisco was not technically considered a Wildland-Urban interface, though there were pockets that appeared so.  She also said that based on topography and fuel, CALFIRE considered San Francisco a moderate fire hazard area, not a high fire hazard zone. [“Moderate” is actually CALFIRE’s lowest rating.]

 not WUI fire area
Her prevention efforts therefore  focused on overgrowth of weeds, grass and vines,  30-foot defensible spaces, tree-limbs within 10 feet of chimney outlet, buildup of leaves or pine needles on roofs.

SFFD weed abatement program

They mainly responded to complaints from neighbors, perhaps half of which were justified and the remainder were people disgruntled with the next-door tree overhanging their house or yard. They usually sent out abatement notices two weeks before 4th of July. Owners usually complied and most yards were well-maintained – the owners didn’t want fires, either. The main problem was in abandoned properties where the neighbor could not be found, or people unable for some reason to maintain their homes. SFFD worked with such cases to ensure safety. Most notices came from Hunters Point/ Bayview around the freeways, and Bernal, places like that.

UCSF MAY DO ANOTHER ROUND OF “FIRE HAZARD REDUCTION”
Chief Joanna Hayes-White praised UCSF for the “fire safety” work 2 years ago, and they said they would be reviewing it this fall. She talked about defensible space and fuel reduction.

UCSF’s  fire marshall, Curtis Itson, emphasized that UCSF has a commitment to keep buildings, visitors, and nearby neighborhoods safe.

In comments, we pointed out that given the fog and the way the vegetation trapped moisture, we needed to be careful that we did not increase fire hazard by reducing the forest’s ability to retain moisture.

More important public comments:

  • In the parks and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, native plant interests are felling trees and substituting more-flammable native plants for fire-resistant non-natives like trees and ice-plant. These landscape transformations increase fire hazard.
  • Trees are a lot less flammable than the myths say. In the parks,  trees are felled and left on the ground as fuel, while toxic herbicides are in use. SFRPD’s forest management needs improvement.
  • Someone  talked about dying trees as fire hazards along O’Shaughnessy, and a singer sang that it would be alright.

If you want to view the hour-long hearing, here’s the LINK.

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2 Responses to SF Fire Department Busts Some Myths

  1. dee seligman says:

    Thank you for this extensive summary for those who could not attend.

  2. Morley M.Singer Professor Emeritus, UCSF says:

    Thanks for the summary, and lets hear it for the SF Fire Dept reasoned approach. Its a striking contrast to the propaganda (lets call it LIES) put out by UCSF in the past. Lesson: You would not expect an outstanding medical institution to put out lies, BUT….do not assume they are above that.

    [SFForest: Thanks for your comment and the compliment! With UCSF, we hope it’s been bad information, rather than something deliberate, and that they will correct it in the face of new evidence.]