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STANFORD -- In the wake of the East Bay fire, many in the Stanford community are asking the question: Could it happen here?
While the answer is "yes," the basic conditions at Stanford are somewhat different than those in the East Bay hills, said Ray Gamma, Stanford fire marshal in the Fire Safety Section of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety.
Numerous factors combined to make the East Bay hills a tinderbox. The wind was strong and variable, shifting from northeast to southwest, the humidity was low, and the temperature was high. The vegetation in the area included many eucalyptus trees and Monterey pines, both extremely flammable.
Five years of drought had left acres of dried-out brush and trees and that, coupled with vegetation damaged by the freeze last winter, made the area an extremely high fire risk.
The topography included deep ravines that hastened the spread of fire. Finally, many of the homes in the high-density East Bay hills were constructed with flammable wood shake roofs.
Some of these conditions were present in Los Altos Hills in 1982, when a grass fire that started along Arastradero Road destroyed 16 homes.
Now, much of Stanford property is maintained to limit the spread of a fire, should one occur. On campus, Gamma sees to it that Stanford mows dry grass areas that are considered hazardous. Following the freeze last winter, a special program was implemented to remove frost-damaged trees and shrubs. Almost all core campus buildings have tile roofs.
Up in the hills, firebreaks are created to contain the spread of a fire. Relatively little brush is present, and although there is an abundance of grass, the drought has kept its growth to a minimum.
Gamma said one area that does concern him is private residences.
"There we must rely on the occupants to keep the area fire resistant," he said.
There are 866 single-family residences on campus, excluding student housing. Of these, 611 are detached, with the rest being condominiums or duplexes. Almost all of these residences are maintained by private individuals, not by Stanford University. Additional private residences are found on the non- academic farmlands that Stanford owns.
What steps can residents take to reduce the potential for brush fires occurring and spreading? It has long been known, and was rediscovered during the East Bay fire, that some trees and shrubs are more fire resistant than others; residents should consider these when landscaping. Residents are advised to remove all dead vegetation from around their homes, both on the ground and on the roofs.
All vegetation and other flammable materials should be cleared from beneath decks, and woodpiles should be kept away from buildings and fences, Gamma said. Residents should look for, and trim, any tree limbs overhanging the chimney or any dead limbs over the house. They also should cover their chimney outlet or flue with a spark-arresting mesh screen.
Capt. Bruce Hallberg of the Palo Alto Fire Department recommends that residents notify the fire department or Environmental Health and Safety if there are physically disabled people living at a residence. That would enable fire fighters to anticipate immediate rescue needs.
The recent rain may be a comfort to people who look forward to the end of the drought, but until substantially more rain comes, the fire hazard will not diminish, Gamma said.
For more information on fire safety, contact Gamma at 725-1471.
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