After North Bay fires, experts say East Bay ‘overdue’ for intense firestorm

Jennifer Xie/Staff

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Berkeley’s once-hazy skies are now clear, but the devastating fires in the North Bay have continued to burn, uprooting thousands and killing at least 40. The ongoing fires have led some to  consider whether or not a similar disaster could strike Berkeley.

John Radke, a campus associate professor of city & regional planning, landscape architecture & environmental planning and urban design, said a large wildfire in the East Bay is “very, very, very probable,” citing similarities between the region’s vegetation and temperature and those of Santa Rosa.

The East Bay is no stranger to wildfires. According to Radke, the area’s dry climate makes it especially susceptible, as was the case during the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991 that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes.

After the Oakland Hills fire, the cities of Berkeley and Oakland implemented several policies to reduce potential damage from, and ultimately prevent, wildfires in the East Bay.

Both cities conduct annual fire code inspections of residential communities, according to Susan Piper, Oakland Hills fire survivor and chair of the Oakland Firesafe Council. Inspectors check for, among other things, a buffer zone between buildings and grass, trees and shrubs — an area referred to as “defensible space.”

But Piper also said she believes Oakland is “overdue” for another fire, adding that residents of Berkeley and Oakland must take preventative actions against fire hazards.

“There are inspections once a year … but you’re responsible for maintaining that space every day of the year,” Piper said. “We were inspected back in June, but stuff grows. You have to go out and maintain it.”

After the 1991 fire, Oakland instituted a fee for its residents to fund fuel reduction across the region, according to William Stewart, co-director of the Center for Forestry at UC Berkeley. Stewart also said in an email that Berkeley did not levy a comparable tax because actively cutting down plants can be “politically tricky.”

UC Berkeley, however, did attempt to reduce vegetation on campus after realizing that it had “serious” evacuation problems near hills, but the initiative was ultimately unsuccessful, Stewart added.

“We were part of a huge planning project with other cities to get FEMA funds to clear the invasive and highly flammable eucalyptus trees (on campus),” Stewart said in an email. “After more than 6 years of planning and approvals, some new FEMA administrator during the Obama administration cancelled the contract based on a few complaints.”

Berkeley Fire Department has updated its notification system since the 1991 fire. The department recently transitioned to AC Alert, a network that allows any fire department in Alameda County to put out a warning message to all subscribed residents, in a similar fashion to UC Berkeley’s Nixle alert system.

BFD previously used the Berkeley Emergency Notification System to notify residents of critical situations, but according to BFD Assistant Chief of Special Operations Keith May, the system was “limiting.”

“It was almost like a reverse 911 — you had to be at home to get a call,” May said. “With AC Alert, we’re able to tap into any device — computer, landline phone (or) cellphone.”

BFD constantly monitors temperatures and relative humidity in the city and sends out extra patrol units if either of these figures becomes alarming.

“All it needs is a spark,” May said. “We can’t plan for everything, but we try.”

Contact Anjali Shrivastava at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.