Cal Fire crews clear vegetation for Highway 17 fire break

Devastating and deadly wildfires the past two years are prompting local officials in the South Bay to take action.

Along northbound Highway 17 in Santa Clara County, Cal Fire crews are deployed in hopes of preventing disaster.

“I think we’re moving through, given the short amount of time we’ve been given to complete this project,” said Shirley Bondi, a project coordinator working for the Santa Clara County Fire Safety Council.

From now until year’s end, crews must cut trees and clear brush, which could become fuel for a wildfire.

“While we cherish the natural beauty of our hillsides, we cannot ignore the wildfire risks they pose,” said Los Gatos Mayor Steve Leonardis.

Officials say two consecutive years of devastating wildfires in the North Bay sounded alarm bells for many of the two million Santa Clara County residents, particularly those living in hillside areas. They say the heavily traveled Highway 17 and surrounding area are poised for the same kind of destruction unless action is taken.

“We know a hillside like this, that’s heavily treed, the fire can just roar on up the hillside,” said Rick Swayne, president of the Redwood Estates Services Assoc.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s office is providing approximately $9M to 10 local agencies and municipalities to reduce fire risk in communities deemed vulnerable.

“All of us in the fire service now are slowly shifting from responding to emergencies to being proactive,” said Ed Orre, the Cal Fire Unified Incident Commander for the area.

Native Redwood trees are now surrounded by other species of plants and trees. That combination can feed flames, allowing a fire to sweep through forest areas and onto homes.

“You can have a ground fire carry up into the trees. So that vegetation density is really important, to be managed,” said John Chapman, an arborist for Valley Water. Added Rocquel Johnson, of CalTrans Dist. 4, “Defensible space along our highway system reduces wildfire ignition that may occur from vehicles and trailers. It also increases visibility on mountainous curves.”

Officials say a six-mile stretch along the highway, from Main Street in Los Gatos to the Santa Cruz County line, will be cleared. They warn drivers resulting delays are a small price to pay for safer mountain travel that’s less susceptible to wildfire.