Monday, May 21, came as a rude awakening to fire department personnel throughout Northern California.
State wildfire experts had been keeping a nervous eye on the unseasonably dry, warm and windy weather for weeks, but it was on that particular Monday that indicators took a dramatic turn for the worst, said Berkeley Assistant Fire Chief David Orth.
Officials at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded first by moving up the beginning of fire season from June 4 to May 28. Then they apparently took a deep breath, looked back out the window, and found the nervousness had not gone away.
The 2001 fire season was declared officially open the very next day.
In addition to heightened alertness, the opening of fire season means the dedication of more resources to fire fighting. The CDF goes on a spending spree, signing contracts for everything from helicopter pilots to Port-A-Potties. Under mutual aid agreements in effect during fire season, multiple fire-fighting agencies will respond at the first sign of smoke in a wildfire zone.
Why all the concern?
According to National Weather Service Meteorologist Shane Snyder,18 inches of rain have been recorded in the Oakland area since last July – only a few inches below the average for this time of year. But the rains came early, and things have been unseasonable warm and dry since them, said Orth and others.
In other words, Star Thistle, Queen Anne’s Lace and other plants that blanket steep hillsides from Richmond to Oakland had ample water to grow tall and bushy before drying out into the combustible skeletons that California’s veteran fire fighters know all too well.
“We have seen weeds two to three times as high as last year,” said Orth, a veteran of the 1991 wildfire that devoured 3,000 homes in Oakland and Berkeley. “Some of the material is as dry now as it was in June of last year.”
Last year was a comparative light year for forest fires in California. According to CDF statistics, fires consumed 72,718 acres and caused about $30 million in damages in 2000, compared to an average of 157,868 acres and $80 million in damages per year, averaged over the previous five years.
Orth said things have already reached an alarming level this year.
“Our critical time has started, which is really new for us,” Orth said, explaining conditions typically don’t reach a critical level until September. “June is usually pretty foggy for us. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Wednesday was a particularly bad day. As temperatures soared into the 90s by mid-afternoon, a hot, dry wind began blowing from the east – the same kind of wind that made the 1991 fire burn down hill, towards homes, faster than it burned up hill. By 3 p.m. the wind was gusting up to 35 mph, sucking out what little moisture was left in the hillsides.
Had Orth been at home, he would have heard his back door begin to rattle.
“That’s one of my indicators,” Orth said.
But Orth was watching other indicators on Wednesday, such as the one that measures what fire experts call “fuel moisture.” This is measured by fastening a piece of wood to a springed scale up in the Oakland hills. As the moisture evaporates from the wood, the change in weight is translated into a “fuel moisture” reading. Wood with 28 percent moisture will not burn at all. Wood with anything below 5 percent moisture is a spark away from spontaneous combustion.
“Anything below five and I want to take a vacation and get out of here,” Orth joked.
By 3 p.m. Wednesday, the “fuel moisture” level in the Oakland hills had hit 4 percent. Orth expected it to be at 3 percent by the end of the day.
“The only good thing is that it’s just started,” Orth said of the low moisture levels. “If we had three days of this, I think we’d be in real trouble.”
Snyder called Wednesday’s heat “just a quick spike up” in temperatures. The wind should begin to come in from the Bay today, Snyder said, holding temperature in the mid-eighties and bumping up the humidity level. By Friday, Snyder forecast a stiff ocean breeze would push temperatures down into the mid-seventies.
But, even then, the risk will be far from over.
“Everybody is concerned,” said City Councilmember Betty Olds, whose hilly northeast Berkeley district lies almost completely in what fire fighters call the “threat zone.”
Olds said city programs are in place to help reduce the fire risk. The city distributes large, green waste bins to anyone who requests them, so hill residents can keep their property clear of combustible debris during the fire season. In the second week of June, the city’s so-called “chipper crew” will begin making the rounds in the hills every couple of weeks, helping interested residents cut back vegetation around their homes.
The only problem with these programs, said Olds, is that they depend on citizens taking an active role – something not all hills residents may be inclined to do.
“It’s the fact that people have forgotten,” Olds said. “They’re not as alert as they were a few years after that terrible fire (the 1991 fire).”
City fire officials have already begun their own efforts at cutting back vegetation in critical areas. Hundreds of goats have been deposited at various hillside locations and left to feast on the overgrown brush plants.
“They just munch and munch and munch and eat about everything,” Orth said.
By June, Orth said the goats should have gobbled up enough plant life to clear a strip 200 to 300 feet wide along the eastern edge of Wildcat Canyon Road. The cleared area will act as a barrier to stop fires that begin in Tilden Region Park from spreading into the city, he said.
But perhaps the most effective tool for Berkeley fire fighters, Orth said, is the partnership between Berkeley Fire Department and other fire fighting agencies that takes affect during fire season. This partnership, initiated in the wake of the 1991 fire, ensures a massive response to any fire that occurs inside the “threat zone” during the fire season. If there is so much as a report of car burning on the side of the road in the Berkeley hills, as many as 22 fire trucks from 5 different agencies could be en route within minutes, Orth said.
“If we do this and we’re ready, we’re able to contain a lot of these fires,” Orth said.
“If it’s a car fire and it’s into the trees and bushes and it’s starting to spread up to a house, then you’re going to want all those 22 units,” he added.