With miles of open space west of Junipero Serra Boulevard, Stanford University boasts beautiful mountain and grassland plant and animal communities to explore or just take in. Its lands are also home to a number of endangered species. But this land is also a potentially deadly beauty. A wildfire could spread rapidly through the dry brush, meadows and trees.
Residential neighborhoods, including Stanford Weekend Acres, Stanford Hills, Ladera and parts of Palo Alto, are nestled along the university's borders. A wildland fire can spread into surrounding vegetation, threatening homes and critical infrastructure including the Stanford radio-telescope Dish, portions of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the Carnegie Foundation and Interstate Highway 280. Pacific Gas & Electric also has facilities and distribution lines throughout the area, as do cable and telephone companies, according to the Santa Clara County Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
"This area epitomizes the statement about wildland-urban interface fires: 'it is not only about the wildland vegetation that burns but more about the consequence of what burns.' Hundreds of acres of grassland could burn in this area with little environmental consequence or fiscal damage; however, there could be significant damage to critical infrastructure or irreplaceable research facilities," the county plan noted.
Stanford University presents a complex situation when it comes to wildfire-prevention strategies. The university’s lands are located in six jurisdictions: unincorporated Santa Clara County, unincorporated San Mateo County, Palo Alto, Woodside, Menlo Park and Portola Valley; no one agency has oversight of its work, according to the county plan.
For Stanford, protection relies on working with other agencies, a recommendation the county made in its plan. Ideas for how that coordination will work are emerging in public documents.
The 2016 updated Palo Alto Foothills Fire Management Plan states the city of Palo Alto will work with Stanford to remove highly flammable eucalyptus on university lands within the city's limits. Palo Alto Fire Department and Stanford staff work cooperatively to create "defensible space," according to the county report, and the university has its own wildfire-management plan developed by the Stanford University Fire Marshal's Office, which outlines how the campus would respond to a wildfire.
Large parts of the university's open-space areas above Junipero Serra and Interstate 280 pose moderate to high fire risk, the 2019 Stanford plan notes. The threat to the urban campus is moderate because it is located down slope of the wildlands and Junipero Serra acts as a fire break. But areas west of Junipero Serra are ranked as a very high fire risk by Cal Fire because of the hilly topography, heavily wooded areas and open grasslands of mainly nonnative grasses.
The Stanford foothills and Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve areas have experienced wildfires, but all have burned less than 100 acres in part because of the area's humid winds and because the trees have higher moisture content. But under the right circumstances, larger fires are possible, the report said. When hotter winds blow, drying out vegetation, the lands have the same risks as other open spaces.
The university uses mechanical means such as mowing and disking along high-risk areas such as roadways and power lines. In more inaccessible areas, it has used herds of more than 700 goats. Crews use masticating equipment to clear heavier brush and trees.
The university also annually inspects all of its private properties to make sure residents and tenants have created defensible spaces around their homes and facilities.
Stanford's plan states that utilities lines "are monitored continually: to keep up with the growing rate of trees and vegetation." It does not specify whether Stanford does the inspections or if the owners of the utilities — PG&E and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory — monitor the work. PG&E and SLAC are responsible for maintaining their transmission lines and clearing defensible spaces, however, the plan states.
SLAC's lines are part of a 7-mile-long, 100-foot-wide easement that runs west to the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains and traverses several fire-management areas, the Stanford plan noted. The university also noted that portions of SLAC lands are under Woodside Fire and state Cal Fire responsibility if a fire breaks out.
Responding to wildfires in other areas of Stanford land will be coordinated been local fire departments and the university based on location, intensity and speed of the fire. The plan states that Palo Alto Fire and Santa Clara County Fire departments will respond to blazes in unincorporated Santa Clara County, with Cal Fire joining in to combat large fires; local fire departments and Cal Fire will take charge in unincorporated San Mateo County.
This article is part of a larger story on local fire agencies grappling with a new era of "megafires," which can be found here.