East Bay at high risk of wildfires: Preventive measures key

Angel Island wildfire. Photo: Chris Wage

One of the last significant wildfires in the Bay Area was on Angel Island in October 2008. Photo: Chris Wage/Creative Commons

Allen Benitez, Chief of Protective Services at Berkeley Lab admits he’s nervous.

“With the drought this summer, there is an extraordinarily high risk of fire in the hills,” he said.

The Lab’s location in the Berkeley foothills, surrounded by trees and vegetation, makes the task of keeping that risk as low as possible daunting. The fact that there are 5,000 to 7,000 people on the campus at any one time, and that an evacuation would entail moving all of them off a fenced property through just one gate, puts the lab — as Benitez terms it — in “a tough spot.”

Benitez will be one of several fire experts speaking at a Fire Forum for the community on Monday June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Berkeley’s Northbrae Church. He will be joined by, among others, Berkeley Fire Department Chief Gil Dong; Robert Chew, Cal Fire’s assistant chief of East Bay operations; Sal Genito, associate director of Grounds and Environmental Services at UC Berkeley; and Brad Gallup from the East Bay Regional Parks District.

On the agenda: the efforts of these different agencies to protect the community from a wildfire in extremely dry and dangerous drought conditions, a discussion of ways for residents to minimize danger, the notification systems that are used, as well as escape routes.

Berkeley Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who is organizing the forum, said, “This is really the first time, to my knowledge, all of these agencies have gotten together to discuss fire danger/safety at a community forum in Berkeley. This year especially, everyone agrees it is a very serious concern.”

Gallup at the parks district said the agency has received extra funding this year for its fuels maintenance program because of the drought, including from FEMA.

The parks district’s 2010 Fuels Plan calls for the treatment of over 3,000 acres over a 10-15 year period, he said. An example of fuel management, he added, might be the removal of some of the trees in a 100-acre stand of Eucalyptus, as well as ground material. Hazardous vegetation, including Eucalyptus, are currently being cut back on Wildcat Canyon Road in Tilden park, for instance.

Vegetation management is also the principal pre-emptive measure taken to reduce the risk and spread of a fire at the Berkeley Lab. It’s a year-round project, Benitez said. Last July the Lab also participated in a full site-wide evacuation practice, and another one is being planned, he said.

Other than that, all those whose job is to address the risk of wildfires, as well as combat them when they occur, are avid weather forecast watchers.

“We pay very close attention to the weather, including humidity and wind levels,” said Benitez, who added that high winds during a wildfire could blow ash into Lab buildings and cause contamination, even though most of the’ structures on campus are fire-resistant.

The older, wooden Lab buildings that don’t have sprinklers likely won’t survive a blaze, however. “We expect to lose those in a wildfire,” Benitez said.

The Fire Forum is on Monday, June 2, 7:30 p.m. at Northbrae Church, 941 The Alameda, Berkeley.

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Berkeley uses free dumpsters to boost disaster prep zeal (03.07.14)
Mount Diablo wildfire prompts Bay Area smoke advisory (09.09.13)
Berkeley CERT volunteer academy takes off this weekend (08.02.13)
Berkeley unites for earthquake safety (04.29.13)
Join the Berkeley-wide emergency drill April 27 (04.10.13)
Berkeley targets underserved for disaster preparedness (10.04.12)
Gear up for the Big One with help from friends (06.17.10)

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  • Alina

    That’s a nice picture, but I think the “last significant wildfire in the Bay Area” was the Mt. Diablo fire in September of last year.

  • emraguso

    You’re 100% correct. We’ve tweaked the caption; thank you for pointing it out!

  • guest

    Bring on the goats!
    (followed by tacos al pastor)

  • Iceland_1622

    Even if you cut all of the brush waaaaay back, hot flammable embers can travel via winds for miles and then land all around you and start things going. I do not have *any* answers in all of this however I am sure that others have perspective and valuable experience. I just remember working at one shelter during the Oakland Hills fire and was horrified as I could hear the gas tanks in cars going off with a dull thud along with 40 foot flames. Still, that was all going to happen one day or the next as *No* brush had been cut back anywhere across time and the Oakland fire crew “left” and abandoned the initial breakout site and didn’t stay the night [ it smolders underground ]. Maybe one thought might be to have full crews living in embedded camps all around the East Bay 24/7 this year, ready to pounce and prepared to move in when these things start and then stay there for days to make certain that it’s neutralized. Again, I know others are more fluent in these matters than I.

  • Tizzielish

    I lived in Mountain View a couple years before moving to Berkeley, which I much prefer. It is warmer there and dryer. All grills were banned in the entire suburb. And all property owners, including my landlord had to cut all vegetation within a certain distance of homes. As Iceland_1622 points out, hot embers can travel via the wind so cutting back vegetation is not the only answer but it can be helpful.

  • Lance Courtland

    Finally, a Council Member who’s doing something useful and meaningful, rather than wasting time and money with ideological BS about foreign policy, drones, and other irrelevant items.

    Bravo Council Member Wengraf!

  • Robert Anderson

    Smokey says, crush all butts!

  • Hank Chapot

    There was a new fire pit at the turnout on Grizzly Peak this week, opposite signpost 14.