Why You May See Smoke at the SFPUC’s Peninsula Watershed

Firefighters and watershed keepers are passionate about preventing the SFPUC’s lands from being devastated by a catastrophe like a wildfire. Year after year they work together to stage controlled burns to keep the face of earthen dams from accumulating dried vegetation that could contribute fuel to turn a small burn into a devastating fire.

Just before the fire season got underway this year, the men and women of CalFire, the San Mateo County Firefighters, and the SFPUC got together to stage a controlled burn on the San Andreas and Pilarcitos dam faces. This allows crews to train responding to real fires on the ground in a controlled setting. It also reduces the fuel loading, which would otherwise only be done by mowing and mechanically removing vegetation. Another positive benefit is providing Peninsula watershed staff, CalFire, and the San Mateo Fire Department the experience of working with one another to quell future outbreaks. It is crucial that SFPUC crews and CALFIRE crews foster these relationships and are familiar with their respective roles during fire response now so that they are ready when a real wildfire comes their way. Also, it trains firefighters and crews from the Ben Lomand Conservation Camp.

San Mateo County Fire, CAL FIRE, and SFPUC personnel monitor fire behavior as flames consume dead fuels on the Pilarcitos Reservoir dam face.

“We enjoy working with the SFPUC, striking up new relationships and gaining experience with all of our equipment. This is the first time that we’ve burned Pilarcitos Dam in at least seven years. So the fact that we were able to pull off a successful burn shows a professional commitment from both sides,” says Sarah Collamer, CALFIRE Forester.

The SFPUC owns approximately 23,000 acres of land in the Peninsula Watershed. There are three drinking water reservoirs here that provide drinking water to about one million people in northern San Mateo County and San Francisco.

An uncontrolled fire could impact the drinking water for almost one million people and threaten the communities that surrounding the area. The San Andreas Dam was built in 1870, and Pilarcitos in 1866. They are earthen dams, and vegetation grows on them. The SFPUC is required to keep these areas clear of vegetation to allow staff to conduct regular inspections to access monitoring equipment and ensure they are functioning safely and as designed.

The SFPUC’s partnership with CALFIRE protects these lands from the threat of wildfire. That includes preventing fires from starting when possible, and keeping those fires that do start small before they become uncontrolled.

Members of the participating departments get acquainted with each other’s duties and equipment in the annual prescribed burn.