Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal
Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal

Santa Rosa’s Jewish fire marshal: Prepare for early wildfire season

Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal doesn’t want people to fear fire season. He wants them to be ready.

The former firefighter and 21-year veteran of the department is spreading that message as wildfire season approaches. With “significant fire potential” predicted to be “above normal” after April across the Bay Area and other parts of Northern California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, it will mark the second year in a row for an early start to a season that in the past was more of a late-summer or early fall event.

With conditions such as drought and fuel (grasses, dead leaves, trees, etc.) creating the same dangerous conditions as they did last year, a focus on fire prevention measures by residents and the fire department could help stave off disaster, said Lowenthal, winner of a 2018 award from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for his work coordinating community evacuations during the Tubbs Fire the year before.

Lowenthal, 43, has seen a great deal of change during his two decades on the job, but none more dramatic than the events of 2017. For the 50 years prior, Santa Rosa had been largely unthreatened by major wildfires, scarred most notably by the Hanly Fire of September 1964, the third largest fire in the history of Sonoma County, burning more than 55,000 acres.

“We had literally dodged the bullet for a long, long time,” Lowenthal said. “Then in 2017, the floodgates seem to open.”

That year, the Tubbs Fire destroyed more than 3,000 homes, killed 22 people, burned more than 37,000 acres and devastated the community. It was a huge wakeup call, Lowenthal said.

Since 2017, his fire department has changed the way it prepares for and responds to fires. It improved its Community Wildfire Protection Plan to reflect changing climate conditions and the increasing frequency and intensity of fires in Sonoma County, Lowenthal said. And last year, he added, fire breaks set up on undeveloped properties helped contain wildfires and allow firefighters more time to defend nearby homes.

The remains of fire-damaged homes in Glen Ellen, California, Oct. 2017. (Photo/JTA-Justin Sullivan-Getty Images)
The remains of fire-damaged homes in Glen Ellen, California, Oct. 2017. (Photo/JTA-Justin Sullivan-Getty Images)

Community outreach and public education on fire prevention also were expanded, said Lowenthal, a public information officer for the SRFD since 2008.

“We’re asking our residents to start taking advantage of the dry conditions and do a lot of the preventive measures [now] that they would do when summer rolls around,” Lowenthal said. “Just to make things a lot easier to maintain once we actually roll into that peak season.”

The fire department’s efforts soon will be bolstered by a new, permanent emergency operations center in Santa Rosa, with a recent $1 million allocation in the federal spending bill. Construction near Finley Park is expected to begin later this year or in early 2023, Lowenthal said.

Born in Pasadena, Lowenthal attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, where his father served as president. He said he celebrates some Jewish holidays, and is planning to spend Passover this year with his family. The 2018 award from the Federation is a point of pride that he said he still keeps on his desk.

Over the course of his career, Lowenthal has seen a shift in how residents think about fire safety. Previously, they were attuned more to earthquake preparedness than fire concerns. Now, Lowenthal said, his team regularly receives calls from people outside of high-risk areas who want to learn how to protect their homes — not only from wildfires, but from small fires in their neighborhoods.

Precautions such as weed abatement, vegetation management and home hardening (clearing out debris and potential fuel sources, and maintaining a 5-foot “noncombustible” zone around buildings) go a long way in keeping fires away, or at least reducing damage.

“We don’t want our residents to be afraid of fire season,” Lowenthal said. “We want them to know that the measures that they’ve taken, on top of most importantly, the tools and resources changes that departments like Santa Rosa have made, have set our communities up to be in a much better position to mitigate that risk and be better prepared for the next fire.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene is a J. Staff Writer. Originally from Vermont, she has a BA in political science and an MA in journalism from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter at @lilsleygreene.