Defensible Space for Fire Resistance

Defensible space, combined with home fire hardening, can increase the odds of your house or home surviving a fire that comes onto your property. In Los Gatos, a large portion of our town, and neighboring unincorporated communities, falls under areas where homeowners are required to mitigate the wildfire risk by reducing fuel and taking other actions. We’ll look at where those areas are and what homeowners in them are required to do.

1 – Mandatory defensible space areas

Is your property in a mandatory defensible space zone? In Los Gatos, there are two listed types under this umbrella:

You can see if your Los Gatos home is in either of these zones by checking the town’s online map, a smaller version of which is below. Areas in red require defensible space criteria to be met and are in one area or the other.

 

Los Gatos - defensible space zones for fire risk mitigation
Click on image to view map on the town’s website – Los Gatos. Mandatory defensible space zones for fire risk mitigation are in red.

As you can see, many Los Gatos neighborhoods fall into this zone, including much of the Civic Center area, Vista del Monte, Glenridge, and many more.

What about unincorporated areas, or Monte Sereno?

 

Cal Fire map of hazard severity zones

 

The town’s map is fairly busy and does not cover the unincorporated areas, or Monte Sereno. An easier one to zoom in on, and which is agnostic toward town boundaries, is on the Cal Fire site, but you will need to zoom quite a few times to see your area. I find this one much easier to read.

2 – What do you need to do to create defensible space in the high fire risk zones?

Laws regulating what must be done (and what can be done, in the case of additions and new construction) in the higher risk fire areas come from both the town and the state. Both of them aim to get residents to remove fuel, such as dead leaves, needles, plants, firewood, and so on are a major step. Thinning brush out, or thinning lower tree branches so that it’s harder for fire to spread is also key. Spacing trees and bushes away from each other, and especially from the house and chimney of homes in the high fire risk zones is crucial, too. Read on to get lists of what to clear out if your property is in these areas with increased fire risk.

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Garden Against Fire!

Landscaping for Wildfire ProtectionThe Los Gatos Library will host an online class, Landscaping for Wildfire Protection

Coming up Thursday, September 24th from 6-7pm Pacific.

Does your garden fight fires? With fire season growing longer and fiercer each year with devastating losses, you might be wondering what you can do to lower risks and protect your property against wildfires. Especially if you live near one of the Bay Area’s beautiful greenspaces! Join the Los Gatos Library with speaker Barbara Hunt, UC Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County, to learn about how wildfires spread and how to landscape to protect your home, from hardscapes to fire-resistant plants. This is a free lecture aimed at California homeowners but open to all.

For more information and the Zoom link, please view the event page.

Join the event on Facebook and set a reminder.

Want to learn more about fire in Los Gatos? Check out some of my other posts on this topic:

Los Gatos Fire Risk

Wildfire Evacuation Route Signs Being Installed (2016)

Fighting Fire With … Wine

A History of Los Gatos Fires and the Los Gatos Fire Department

Combined fire map with evacuation zones 2020

A combined fire map with evacuation zones is now available! As the various fire complexes engulf the San Francisco Bay Area, the Monterey Bay Area, and much of the state, it’s been challenging to see regional maps since Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties were using Garmin Maps and Santa Clara and other counties were using Google map. Yesterday I found a new combined fire map with the evacuation zones published on Garmin and am happy to share that link with you here.

 

Combined fire map with evacuation areas shows

 

There are disclaimers, of course, as you log into the site. Because it is collecting info from several counties, that info may not be as updated as from the county in question.  The CZU fire, though, now has warning zones in Santa Clara County (from the heights of Montebello Road in Cupertino down to Redwood Estates in Los Gatos), so creating a map that would include Santa Clara County makes sense.

For me, this is  far more helpful than a list of roads and directions such as “east of xyz road” etc. It appears to be updated frequently

Los Gatos fire risk

What is the Los Gatos fire risk? This morning a good friend of mine shared a map app that is very helpful for understanding any California property’s wildfire odds. Buildings are given a color code from blue (for low risk) to dark red (for very high risk). With the fires raging in the Diablo range on the east side (from about Fremont to Gilroy), the Santa Cruz Mountains, and many other areas of the Golden State, some folks are getting nervous – even if their particular property is not close to the infernos or in a particularly dangerous location.

If you do live in the Los Gatos or Santa Cruz Mountains, you do know that the chances of fire are elevated over more densely populated areas.  If your home is close to the hills or large open space that stretches into the foothills, it’s not a surprise that your  risk is increased over those in the flat lands.  What is your Los Gatos fire risk? Have a look at the DefensibleApp website and see what it says about your California location.

 

Los Gatos fire risk map

Wildfire Evacuation Route signs being installed

Wildfire Evacuation Route in Los GatosThe Town of Los Gatos takes its responsibility for minimizing risk from flood, fire, earthquake, or other disasters seriously.  A few months ago, I began to notice “Flood evacuation route” signs.  First I noticed it along Blossom Hill Road, close to the Highway 17 over crossing, and later on Lark Avenue.  (Lexington Reservoir  is located further down the highway and a break in the dam would bring tons of water screaming down the highway 17 corridor.)  Seemed like a wise idea, given that we have that and also Vasona Lake right here.

Additionally, though, last week I saw a “Wildfire Evacuation Route” sign too.  It was located on Prospect Avenue and Kimble Avenue, across from the new Sorellas housing development which is currently under construction by Summerhill (formerly the Holy Names Sisters convent and Casa Maria Montessori School).

If you live in a woodsy or mountainous area, the odds are good that your property is located in a zone earmarked as high risk for wildfires, and you’ve been notified that brush must be cleared 100 feet away from your house or structure annually to create “defensible space”. (Some of the best Los Gatos real estate can be found in those areas!) What isn’t always so apparent is where to go in the case of a wildfire.  These new signs should help to improve safety in case of a serious fire.

You may not know that the town has some helpful resources online, too.  You can find them here:

http://www.losgatosca.gov/1359/Fire-Safety-and-Wildfire-Preparedness

CalFire flier on creating 100′ of defensible space around your home (pdf)

Other helpful info:

Flood evacuation information on the town’s website

72-Hour Emergency Preparedness Kit Checklist (pdf)

“Los Gatos Prepared” revised

Statement of purpose on the Los Gatos Prepared page:
Empowering Community Self-Sufficiency towards the ultimate goal of every resident and business in Los Gatos having the awareness, skills, and resources necessary to be self-sufficient in the event of an  earthquake, fire, flood, or possible flu pandemic

Los Gatos Fires and the Los Gatos Fire Department

fire articleLos Gatos Fire Department History

Fire was a major danger in Los Gatos in the 1800s. Buildings were made of wood, including sidewalks (think boardwalk), and most appliances – light, heat, cooking – still used an open flame. Fire was a greater, more present danger than local wildlife (cougars and grizzlies). In its early years, the town relied on bucket brigades, finally graduating to two volunteer Hose Companies and a Hook and Ladder Company in around 1886. The Cold Spring Water Company of Los Gatos filed to incorporate in December 1890 with the stated purpose to “introduce water for domestic and fire purposes into the town of Los Gatos.”. In 1888 the town passed an ordinance to provide for the organization of a dedicated Fire Department, and perhaps just in time. A major cartridge fire in July of 1891 leveled many of the town’s businesses, and saw the shift of the business district from the east bank to the west bank of the Los Gatos Creek – and it has remained so to this day.

While many major fires destroyed homes, stores, hotels, and even an opera house, the worst is often said to be the 1901 fire.

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Fires in Bonny Doon Remind Us to be Careful, Especially in the "Fire Season"

August 14, 2009

August brings very little rainfall to Los Gatos, Saratoga, and San Jose.  The long, dry days make our wooded hills and grassy meadows particularly vulnerable to fire.  A small spark from an untended burn or an electric motor – perhaps even clearing the brush to prevent fires – can have disastrous consequences.  The current fire just “over the hill” in Bonny Doon and close to Santa Cruz is a big reminder to us that we live with the risk of fire year-round, but especially at this time of year.

Los Gatos has an old history with fire disasters, both in town and in the nearby mountain communities.  I’m not referring to the Lexington fire of 1985 (which happened about three weeks before my wedding).  I’m referring to our collective “wild west” history.  A serious fire levelled part of downtown Los Gatos on July 26, 1891, destroying nine “buildings on both sides of East Main Street from the bridge to College Avenue”.  Again on October 13, 1901, a livery fire on Montebello Road destroyed ” much of the business district along West Main Street, from the bridge to the railroad tracks. Nearly 60 buildings burn to the ground.”   Among the casualties of that fire was the bell tower to alert the townspeople of fire!  (Both of these quotes from a timeline produced by the Los Gatos Times Weekly.)  See photos of the fires and the firefighters at the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s page on Los Gatos and the hiistory of fire fighting in our town.)

In January 1934, there was a fire at the Jesuit Novitiate.  The water supply was inadequate so the decision was made to pump out the wine to extinguish the fire. Some 60,000 gallons of newer wine was used – and saved 200,000 gallons of old wine (plus the vineyards, which would have taken years to be fruitful again if lost to fire).  This was a repeat of a similar event in the mountains in the late 1800s, when red wine used to battle the fire caused the Los Gatos Creek to run red.  We can only imagine how the townspeople felt when they saw the creek turn a plague-like red! 

But back to today (even though the history – and what’s above is only partial – of Los Gatos and fires is fascinating), we want to make sure that this type of history doesn’t repeat itself. Besides, you probably don’t have 60,000 gallons of wine to throw at a fire anyway.

What can you do to lower your risk of fire?

There are varying levels of risk.  If you have a large parcel of land with a lot of vegetation that dries out in summer, you’ll have much more risk than a homeowner with a green lawn and plants close to the home.  In all cases, clear any dead brush, vegetation, bushes, etc away from your home; the Cal Fire site suggests 100′  for riskier areas (which makes sense if you are in a rural area, but perhaps is not so feasible in a suburban or tract neighborhood). It’s better to cut weeds, grass and bushes back prior to 10am, when there’s more humidity (and less chance of a spark turning into a flame).  Do not stack firewood up against your home. Do not have open fires or untended fires, particularly if embers can get away. It goes without saying, of course, to be especially careful with cigarettes, fireworks, and other burning or smoldering items.  It’s not worth the risk to be careless.  Please see the Cal Fire site for more info for homeowners: http://www.fire.ca.gov/fire_prevention/fire_prevention_wildland_zones.php

If you are in a “very high fire danger area” – places next to large, open and wooded parks, homes on large parcels up against the hills – you should know if your home is in that zone – you’ll have extra responsibilities.  You will be required to have that clearance mentioned above, for instance.  You can find the zone maps and the regulations here, on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention site.

Fires are risky for homeowners, pets, wildlife, and the men and women who risk it all to battle the blazes for us.  The cost is very high when a fire takes hold – when  a home goes down from fire, so much is lost that simply can never be replaced.  Nothing is worse than the loss of human life, though.  Many thanks to the firefighters who are out there waging war on the flames right now.  Let’s do our best to give them nothing to do.