Northern California fires spark concern among Berkeley residents, emergency responders

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Miles away from her hometown in Copperopolis, California, UC Berkeley sophomore Hannah Cooper is anxiously waiting for the Butte fire to spare her community.

Her younger siblings were evacuated from their school because of the smoke, and many families in Northern California have been displaced from their homes as wildfires move inland.

“It’s happening so fast that people are still shocked by it,” Cooper said. “People don’t even know if their house is standing at all.”

Over the weekend, a wildfire in Lake County claimed the life of one civilian, and four firefighters were hospitalized for severe burns. The fire quickly spread across 61,000 acres of land and destroyed hundreds of homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Only 5 percent of the fire was contained with more than 1,000 fire personnel on site.

Farther east, the Butte fire charred Amador and Calaveras counties, where it consumed more than 71,000 acres of land and threatened approximately 6,400 structures. More than 4,400 firefighters have fought the flame for five days and have contained about 35 percent of the fire.

“Because of the drought, the conditions for the forest fire are perfect,” Cooper said. “We’re doing the best we can, and we’re definitely progressing — but I’m still worried.”

According to Scott Stephens — a UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management — climate change plays less of a role in the outbreak of fires, noting that 80 percent of the blame for the increasingly intense wildfires lies with the density of woody fuel and increase in surface fuel on the ground.

Stephens added that the No. 1 cause of wildfires is people and that the overwhelming majority of fires are accidents.

Additionally, changes in the ecological system have contributed to higher-intensity wildfires. While there were approximately 50 trees per acre in 1800, that number has grown to 500, increasing the amount of surface fuel, according to Stephens.

Stephens said that his biggest concern for possible wildfires in Berkeley is the presence of eucalyptus bark, whose highly flammable embers can spread easily by wind.

Eucalyptus fires threw embers a mile downwind in the Oakland hills fire of 1991, which killed 25 people. In August, a small vegetation fire erupted in the Berkeley-Oakland hills but was quickly contained by local emergency responders.

As cities across the state attempt to implement fire mitigation strategies, controversy was ignited among Berkeley locals earlier this month, when community members protested the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club’s support of non-native tree removal.

Max Moritz — a specialist in UC Berkeley’s department of environmental science, policy and management — said California residents need to learn to accept wildfires, which feed off drought-stricken plants, and build stronger structures.

“We can map out hazard levels and risks … and adjust where and how we build our communities on the landscapes accordingly,” he said. “We need to learn to coexist with fire.”

Staff writer Emily Pedersen contributed to this report.

Contact Alok and Emily at [email protected].