On October 25, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) issued a red flag warning that took effect the following day. Wind conditions put the Berkeley Hills at risk for fires, closing parks and forcing some residents to evacuate.
The purpose of red flag warnings are to prepare both residents and firefighters for dangerous weather conditions. Embers blowing in the air can ignite dry grass as well as other vegetation, and potentially start fires.
In preparation for the possibility of a fire, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) “has strategically prepositioned critical fire resources to include strike teams of fire engines, firefighters, hand crews, water tenders, helicopters, dispatchers and overhead staff in 10 counties across the state … [including] Alameda County.”
Residents were encouraged to clear their surroundings with the red flag warning in effect. “100 feet of defensible space around structures” is a key safety tip on the Cal Fire website.
“I think Berkeley has always been proud of its wild look,” said Sharon Friedman, a long time inhabitant of the Berkeley Hills. “[However], people need to be cleaning up around their yard space.”
Friedman said that “with all the young people that have … changed their college plans because of the pandemic,” she was able to gather a unit of students that could clear away potentially harmful debris. “[This could] turn the situation we’re in to something that could really be for the greater good.”
Correspondence began over the summer via Zoom, where the city stressed the importance of an evacuation plan to residents like Friedman. “My [main] fear was being able to know the things I would take out of the house if I had to leave in a hurry,” said Friedman.
Chief among the preparations made by Berkeley was the closing of parks to the public. In total, eleven parks were gated off, from Chabot to Tilden. Popular locations were further blocked with barriers and tape, and violators could expect a citation.
The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) has previously worked towards safer conditions in public parks. Volunteers and workers paid with money from local funding have cleared dangerous vegetation for years, employing everything from helicopters to sheep.
According to Cal Fire, the most important way to stop wildfires and help firefighters is by maintaining defensible space, which they described as “The buffer you create between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any wildland area that surrounds it.” The required area for this barrier is one hundred feet, with only thirty of it being completely clear.
Friedman doesn’t think that conditions have always been this bad. “The conditions have changed. The droughts have gotten worse, the fire season has gotten longer and more dangerous … and the temperatures have gotten much hotter.” Climate change has undeniably impacted this as higher temperatures lead to the perfect dry fuel needed for wildfires.
Lingering in the memory of many Berkeley Hills residents is the East Bay Hills fire of 1991. The blaze ravaged 1,520 acres of land, destroyed almost 3,000 homes, and killed 25 people. In that case, the main cause was wind. When a brushfire was picked up by winds off Mount Diablo, it cast embers across the East Bay. Although the fire occurred nearly thirty years ago, it serves as a reminder that a fire can destroy entire neighborhoods. A memorial of the tragedy occupies the walls underneath the Rockridge Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station.