Urban wildfires are the new normal and everyone should be prepared, Berkeley filmmaker says

Burned car in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Photo by Kevin White

Working on his documentary Wilder than Wild has destroyed Berkeley filmmaker Stephen Most’s sense of permanence. “Seeing what happened in Santa Rosa made me realize just how transient all the stuff that’s in my world can be,” said Most, the film’s producer and screenwriter. “It really changes your perception, that first-hand experience.” The documentary has its Bay Area premiere tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the David Brower Center.

“In the East Bay we think about earthquakes all the time, but we don’t think about a wildfire coming from outside our house and consuming entire blocks,” said Most, who lives in central Berkeley. “Within minutes, a fire could spread from the East Bay Regional Park to downtown Berkeley. In 1923, there was a fire that reached Shattuck and burned everything in its path.” That event could easily happen again today, he said.

Even though residents who live in the flats have historically felt safe from wildfires that are more likely to threaten the hills, that sense of safety may no longer be warranted in the age of megafires. Megafires are “wilder than wild” fires, and due to global warming, they are becoming far more common. Fires such as the Rim Fire and last year’s wine country fire burn hundreds of thousands of acres, and by releasing huge amounts of carbon into the air they contribute to the cycle of global warming.

“A lot of people have their head in the sand about the risk they are living with,” said Kevin White, the director/producer of Wilder than Wild. “In areas like Berkeley, you need to think about the fuel load. You need to ask: ‘if a fire came through here, is my house at risk?’ I really want people to understand that fires affect all of us, even if you live in the city.” The very thing that makes northern California so attractive to so many people — the preponderance of vegetation and forests — also makes the region susceptible to fire, he said.


The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest. U.S. Forest Service photo by Mike McMillan.

Wildfires can reach downtown

“If we could rewind the clock an entire year and ask people in Santa Rosa whether they think that people in the Coffey Park subdivision should be worried about wildfire, they would say: not really,” agreed Mike Shuken, a paramedic with the Berkeley Fire Department. “They would have said, ‘we live in a flat area, far away from the hills.’ Not a single one of them went to bed that night expecting to be woken at two o’clock in the morning, and told they had five minutes to evacuate.”

Shuken is an amateur videographer and was on Engine 6 the night of the fire, heading up to Santa Rosa to help the fire department there. He took dramatic footage of the raging fire on his iPhone, which was first shared on Berkeleyside and was then picked up by national TV networks. When Most saw that footage on Berkeleyside, he contacted Shuken and asked him to appear in the documentary and tell his story. The scenes of apocalyptic devastation captured by Shuken create an unforgettable ending to the documentary.

“The first place we were asked to meet and stage for our assignment was the KMart,” Shuken said. “But when we got to the parking lot, the entire KMart was on fire. It was a 100,000-square-foot building, right in the middle of the city. We didn’t even know where to start. … We had to drive 10, 15, 20 minutes through a burned-out subdivision just to find a row of houses that we could even attempt to save. I thought the apocalypse was going on. Stuff was flying at 80 miles per hour. It was a firestorm.”

Shuken shot the video as a training tool for the fire department, and also to share with his family, he said. He did not expect that, eventually, this footage would be viewed six million times.

Coffey Park subdivision of Sand Rosa after the fire. Photo by Mike Shuken.

Worst nightmare, realized

“The thing is, we were heading into the studio to do the final cut on Oct. 9,” Most said. (The wine country fires broke out late on Oct. 8). The documentary was going to focus on the Rim Fire, the megafire phenomenon, and the new emphasis on prescribed burns as a way to prevent megafires. “But all of a sudden, the Santa Rosa fire started, and we knew we were not done.”


“It was like my worst nightmare, realized,” White added. “I really wanted to understand more about why this is happening, and why it’s happening now. There is no such thing as a fire season anymore: fires are happening throughout the year, and they are happening in areas which are at the wildland-urban interface.” Places such as Coffey Park. Or Berkeley. 

“These are the fires of the future,” White said. “There are going to be more fires, larger fires, and higher-intensity fires. Humans have sculpted this landscape — these places that used to be wild — by not allowing fires and not thinning them out. And then all of a sudden you have a situation that can be really dangerous.”

Most and White spent $300,000 to make this documentary, because they want to raise awareness about the dangers of megafires, and what can be done to prevent them. They have only raised about half of the cost so far, and are hoping to recoup at least some of the money by holding additional screenings. “We believe there is a value in a shared viewing experience, and community screenings,” White said. “Neighbors need to start talking about what our risks are for wildfire, and what can be done about it.” 

Stephen Most at his Berkeley office. Photo by Daphne White.

Some of the things people can do is get to know their neighbors; learn about their closest evacuation routes; prepare a go-bag; decide ahead of time what they might want to grab if they had to evacuate quickly; and sign up for alerts such as Nixle, Shuken said. In addition, the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association is holding a Paths Inventory Walk on July 22 in order to take stock of improvements which will make all of Berkeley’s paths more emergency-ready, and they are looking for individuals and neighborhood groups who can help with the effort.

These ideas and others will be discussed at a panel discussion following tonight’s screening, which will feature Shuken, UC Berkeley Fire ecologist Scott Stephens, and City Councilmember Kate Harrison. While tonight’s event is almost sold out, information about setting up or attending future community screenings is here.

SELECTED RESOURCES:


Wilder than Wild offers some fire action plans on the film’s website.

In addition, here is a partial list of local resources focusing on wildfire and other disaster preparedness:

Berkeley Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training

Berkeley Fire Department wildfire evacuation information 

CalFire information on preparing your home for wildfires  

Berkeley Path Wanderer Association: July 22 event to inventory all of Berkeley’s paths to make them more emergency-worthy

Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network 

Berkeley CERT & Inter Neighborhood Network: volunteer emergency radio network.