In 2020 alone, while nearly 2.5 million Californians were infected by COVID-19, nearly 10,000 fires burned 4.2 million acres across the state (The New York Times 2021, Cal Fire 2020). That is more than one football field’s worth of land burned for each Californian infected by COVID-19.

Fire preparedness is pivotal to preserving the health of our surrounding ecosystems and communities. As a local resident, I wanted to learn more about what work is being done to prepare for wildfires this year. I reached out to Samuel Herzberg, a Senior Planner at the San Mateo County Parks Department, and Portola Valley Mayor Maryann Moise Derwin to better understand what  is being done to mitigate fire risk and educate residents in San Mateo County. 

Sam explained that there are major fire prevention programs happening in Huddart Park, Quarry Park, Wunderlich Park, and San Bruno Mountain Park. Sam and Maryann described how decades of fire suppression have yielded much overgrowth in local forests. This overgrowth results in less biodiversity as plants and animals that prefer open spaces have no room, making it harder for plants to fight diseases (as a single infection is more likely to spread to other plants). A healthy forest, in contrast, has clear open patches and a diversity of plant species. The additional space not only makes healthy forests more resilient to disease but also mitigates the rapid spread of fires to some degree.

Fuel reduction programs aim to bring our forests to a healthier state. For example, Huddart Park is moving toward selectively thinning dense stands of trees. While paying careful attention to preventing erosion and damage to plant species is vital to the area’s ecosystem, park rangers are aiming to treat a total of 218 acres of forest. In San Bruno Mountain Park, crews are removing gorse, an invasive yellow-flowered shrub native to western Europe and North Africa, to improve ecosystem health and reduce fire hazard.

Alongside fuel reduction efforts, the county’s Department of Emergency Management is implementing the 2016 Multijurisdictional Local Hazard Mitigation Plan, which integrates aspects of fire prevention in emergency planning. The Wildfire Fuel Management Program 2021-2026 has systematically outlined the most fire-prone regions near residential areas to allow for targeted outreach and actions. 

Collectively, fire prevention efforts in the counties are twofold: (1) identifying regions that would be at risk for fires and (2) implementing fuel reduction programs. To learn more about the county’s fire prevention efforts, check out San Mateo County’s Forest Health and Community Safety Initiative.

By Nikita Salunke