2018 could be the worst fire year in California history, and a coalition of East Bay firefighters say they will not be able to effectively fight all the anticipated wildfires without the help of local residents: the job is just too large.
Which is why more than 30 uniformed firefighters from 14 different agencies assembled Tuesday on Grizzly Peak Boulevard at the scene of the Aug. 2, 2017, Grizzly Fire, to “humbly” ask for the public’s help. It was an unusual scene: first responders, whose job is to help the public, asking the public for help. The event was organized by the Hills Emergency Forum, an interagency firefighting team formed in 1993, in the aftermath of the Oakland Hills fire of 1991.
A tag-team of area fire officials walked up to a mobile podium set up at the Sign Post16 turnout to say that despite their numbers, extensive collaboration, and an impressive array of equipment, they can’t do it alone. California has experienced more frequent and more intense wildfires in recent years, and fire season can no longer be considered just a summer or fall event: Wildfires can and do happen at any time.
“We are asking you to be a part of our team because conditions are again warming, and the vegetation is quickly drying,” said Jonathan Cox, Northern California Battalion Chief and a public information officer with CAL FIRE. “At minimum, we ask that you abate your property of hazardous vegetation proactively, and maintain defensible space.”
“It’s the collective efforts of homeowners and neighbors that can have the greatest positive impact and results,” added Aileen Theile, a fire captain with the East Bay Regional Park District. “If each resident were to cut down and remove overgrown brush regularly on their property, establish those critical 100-foot fuel reduction zones around their homes, prune back trees near their roof, remove fire-prone vegetation and then continue to maintain their property with minimal fuel, the results could be less fire and greater preservation of homes, infrastructure and life.”
“It’s the collective efforts of homeowners and neighbors that can have the greatest positive impact and results,” said one fire captain. “If each resident were to … establish those critical 100-foot fuel reduction zones around their homes, the results could be less fire and greater preservation of homes, infrastructure and life.”
Creating “defensible space” around homes and structures in advance of a fire event is critical to the preservation of communities, added David Gibson, fire captain and battalion chief with the El Cerrito Fire Department. ”Clearing seasonal weeds, brush and combustible debris from your property now and then maintaining your property in a fire safe condition reduces the fire threat. This is an ongoing process that requires all of us to prioritize,” and the time to do that clearing is now, he said.
Fire defense is self-defense
Cal Fire’s Cox added that in addition to individuals keeping their own properties clear of combustible materials, “we humbly ask for more.” He asked residents to organize a neighborhood cleanup day, or volunteer at a local park or open space to remove invasive weeds and brush. “Help clean up trash,” he said. “Remember, fire defense is self-defense.”
The Hills Emergency Forum is using the Grizzly Fire of 2017 to prepare for 2018 fires. A Contra Costa County man, Alfredo Bautista, was charged in August 2017 with deliberately setting the fire; his case is now making its way through the court system.
Last year’s management of that 20-acre fire was a successful collaboration of 14 Alameda and Contra Costa fire-fighting agencies and involved 200 firefighters.
There were many favorable conditions that resulted in the successful management of that wildfire, however: previous hazardous fuel management, fire agencies’ response through the mutual aid system, rapid public notifications, closures and evacuations. But there is no guarantee that the next wildfire will be that easily contained, so officials are worried.
They are doing what they can in anticipation of the next event, by working collaboratively to create fuel breaks that will help protect neighborhoods; developing vegetation clearances; engaging in tree pruning and mowing to hep reduce fire ignition potentials; and using goats to graze underbrush. But all that is not enough, said Vincent Crudele, chair of the Hills Emergency Forum. “It’s the collective efforts of homeowners and neighbors that can have the greatest positive impact and results.”
Berkeley to release evacuation plan
After the public presentation, Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan told Berkeleyside that his department is planning to release a new evacuation plan for the city by the end of the summer.
The plan will identify streets in the Berkeley hills which are wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic, and other streets which will become one-way up or one-way down in an emergency situation such a fire or an earthquake. “We will turn the city into a grid, and then we will be able to reach each grid when tell them when they need to evacuate and what streets they should take to get out,” Brannigan said.
“A wind-driven fire storm will not be stopped in the early hours,” he said. “People will need to be ready to evacuate really quickly. If you are unsure what to do, leave early. It’s really important to know two different ways out of your neighborhood.” In many cases, Berkeley’s paths are the quickest routes out of hill neighborhoods.
During fire emergencies, it is also important that cars be parked off-street, especially in the hills, so that emergency vehicles can get through. People have died in their cars when they can’t escape through narrow streets, and it is sometimes necessary to evacuate by foot.
Brannigan urged all city residents to sign up for AC Alert and Nixle alerts, so that they can be notified about evacuations. During red flag days — with high winds, low humidity and high temperatures— he suggested people might want to keep their cell phones on at night, so that they can hear possible alerts. “The county can blast all land lines,” and the AC Alert and Nixle alert messages will go to cell phones. If none of that works, the fire department will also go door-to-door, he said.
“The speed at which a wildfire can advance is amazingly swift,” he said. “Have important documents stored and easily retrievable. Have clothing, medications, drinking water and food supplies collected in advance that can be gathered and move with you, either by vehicle or by foot.”
Last year saw the most destructive wildfires in California’s history: five of the largest wildfires on record occurred in 2017, including the Thomas Fire. So far, 2018 has seen more fires statewide than 2017. And what used to be called the fire “season” is just beginning. (The fire “season” is now considered to run year-round.)
Brannigan agreed with the other fire chiefs that it’s not a matter of if another big wildfire will occur, but when. Which is why they all gathered on a chilly, foggy morning on Grizzly Peak to issue this warning.