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As hundreds of wildfires rage across the state, two of the three wildfires surrounding the Bay Area have broken records as the second and third largest fires in state history. All three fires—the SCU, CZU, and LNU lightning complexes—were ignited after the dry lightning event on August 16.
Currently, there are extreme fire danger restrictions in all regional parks in the East Bay, though only some are closed, and fire restrictions in all of the state’s national forests. Multiple state parks, including one in Alameda County, are closed due to ongoing wildfires. Smoking, open fires, and use of grills are not allowed in regional parks due to the current extreme fire risk.
The Oakland and Berkeley hills above Highway 13 and 580 are at the highest risk, and that’s where local fire departments concentrate their efforts. CalFire and the Oakland Fire Code designate most of the Oakland hills as a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone” due to their location, topography, vegetation, climate, and history.
In this first part of a two-part explainer on wildfire prevention, fire preparedness, and air quality, The Oaklandside spoke to Oakland Fire Department officials, the local air quality management district, the city auditor, and community leaders about preparing and responding to fire and air-quality dangers.
In Part Two, we’ll be addressing more of your questions, including what flatlanders need to know and do to prepare. You can submit more questions here.
To stay in the loop and make your voice heard, you can attend a Zoom town hall on wildfire prevention and safety, organized by Oakland City Councilmembers Sheng Thao (District 4) and Dan Kalb (District 1), on Monday, August 31 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
How does the Oakland Fire Department respond to fire danger?
During forecasted weather conditions that could result in extreme fire danger, the National Weather Service can issue Red Flag Warnings, which you can sign up for through Alameda County’s AC Alerts. When that happens, the Oakland Fire Department sends additional fire patrol units to the hills and to Joaquin Miller Park to keep an eye out for fire hazards and to inform the public about heightened risks and park closures.
Roughly 145 firefighters conducted roving fire patrols in the Oakland hills during the most recent Red Flag Warning, which lasted from August 23 to 25. Just under 30 Oakland firefighters are currently outside of the city, fighting the SCU, CZU, and LNU lightning complex fires.
Earlier this year, OFD responded to 17 fires in April, 44 in June, and 108 in July— many started by fireworks— throughout the city. There have been seven vegetation fires around Grizzly Peak in the Tilden Park area, just over a mile from Oakland’s Sibley Volcanic Preserve. The largest fire OFD has confronted this year burned two acres in King Estates Open Space in East Oakland on June 4.
OFD’s vegetation management unit is responsible for reducing wildfire risk with inspections, goat grazing, and fire patrols on both residential and city-owned properties, as well as public education.
Vegetation inspections on city-owned and private property are handled by the Fire Marshal and the Vegetation Management Supervisor. Over the last five years—especially after the scrutiny of City Auditor Courtney Ruby’s 2013 vegetation inspection audit—OFD has stepped up its vegetation management efforts and is moving towards a more comprehensive management plan.
The number of vegetation inspections in the Oakland hills has increased from years past. In 2011, OFD conducted 26,000 vegetation inspections. So far this year, OFD has already conducted inspections at 27,000 households. There are 1,000 homes left to be inspected. So far, 10%—roughly 2,800 households—haven’t been compliant.
OFD is adding to its fleet two water tenders, vehicles that transport water to fires, in order to maintain a constant water supply to fight fires in areas that don’t have fire hydrants. OFD also recently hired a new Emergency Planning Coordinator, who started just last week, to lead community preparedness events and initiatives year-round.
How do I prepare for evacuation, and how much notice will I get?
“It’s really difficult to predetermine how evacuation is going to happen,” said Doug Mosher, an Oakland resident who formed Oakland Community Preparedness and Response in 2019, an emergency preparedness group. “What we recommend is knowing every possible way out of your neighborhood to a major road or a highway.”
City and community leaders wrestle with whether or not to give people a lot of information ahead of time, simply because all plans are largely theoretical until a fire actually starts, and existing instructions could end up being misleading or even dangerous.
That being said, there are two types of evacuations: “planned evacuations” and “no-notice evacuations.” When it comes to planned evacuations, residents will typically receive notifications, likely through AC Alert and through local news, one to two days ahead of time.
No-notice evacuations are exactly what they sound like: there won’t be any advance warning before residents must leave the area immediately. When that happens, residents will receive automatic alerts to their phones, similar to Amber Alerts, and may hear the activation of 27 sirens installed along the 880 corridor in the Oakland hills after the ‘91 Firestorm. Those sirens, which are activated by police or fire dispatchers, are tested every first Wednesday of the month. They’ve never been activated in a real emergency situation.
Meanwhile, the county, along with local jurisdictions including the city of Oakland, is working with startup ZoneHaven to develop evacuation plans and intelligent software, said OFD Deputy Chief Luby.
“We’re working with our regional partners in the county and throughout the area to develop a comprehensive evacuation plan,” said Luby.
Here are more of OFD Deputy Chief Luby’s evacuation tips:
- Have an evacuation plan and at least two planned routes to escape
- Pack emergency bags with documentation (medical, homeowners insurance, birth certificates)
- Don’t set your phone to “Do Not Disturb” or leave it on airplane mode (or you won’t hear alerts!)
- Remove all combustibles surrounding your house if you must evacuate
- Close all doors and windows if you must evacuate to prevent embers from landing inside your house
How do I monitor air quality? What’s the difference between AirNow and Purple Air—and what do all the colors mean?
When you check out air quality maps in the Bay Area, you’re most likely looking at data from one of two different kinds of sensor networks: AirNow and PurpleAir.
AirNow, a federal program, is a national partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and federal agencies including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Centers for Disease Control, as well as tribal, state, and local air quality agencies
AirNow relies on EPA-certified air monitoring sensors that can distinguish between fog, humidity, and particles of pollution. There are three monitors tracking air quality in Oakland, at West Oakland, Laney College, and East Oakland. You can see AirNow data here.
A commercially owned and operated air-quality tracking system called PurpleAir uses low-cost sensors that anyone can buy to add data to the PurpleAir network. Since there are a lot more PurpleAir sensors than AirNow sensors, this network can provide information about real-time air quality on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis (meaning they are representative of a smaller area).
“PurpleAir is really desirable for people who live in microclimates, particularly areas like San Francisco, where you can have such dramatic differences” in weather, said Jerri Randrup, spokesperson for the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, who noted that Alameda County also has microclimates.
During wildfires, the EPA recommends visiting the AirNow Fire and Smoke Map, because it includes information from both kinds of sensors to help residents quickly see how fires may be affecting their air quality. The map also shows large fires, fires detected by satellites, and smoke plumes.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) also provides local sensor readings that monitor PM 2.5 levels, the most harmful particulate pollution for the human body. You can check out BAAQMD’s AQI network here.
“Usually if you can see or smell smoke, AQI levels are significantly elevated,” said Erin DeMerritt, spokesperson for BAAQMD. “If you can’t see or smell it, you can always check our public data site. There are multiple monitors in Oakland, and the whole network is representative of regional pollution levels.”
While PurpleAir has a denser sensor network than AirNow, PurpleAir sensors don’t come with a dryer or heater, which means particles can accumulate and cause misleadingly high readings. To get a more accurate picture when using maps that use PurpleAir sensors, you can filter for LRAPA (Lane Regional Air Pollution Agency) readers, which tend to be more reliable.
And if you really want to geek out on this stuff, this Bold Italic article by Josh Hug, a data and computer science professor at U.C. Berkeley, does a great job of analyzing the reasons behind why you might see variation in AQI levels reported by PurpleAir and AirNow.
How do you protect yourself from smoky air? Do masks help?
With fire comes smoke and unsafe air. How does this fire season stack up so far? “We’re seeing days of unhealthy air quality, but this is not the worst or the highest levels that we’ve ever seen,” said Erin DeMerritt, public information officer at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
DeMerritt says the region experienced far worse air quality during the 2017 North Bay wildfires. The highest daily average air quality index, or AQI, at that time was a whopping 249—a.k.a “very unhealthy.” The highest level Oakland has seen in the two weeks since the dry lightning event that ignited several major fires in and near the Bay Area was on August 25, when East Oakland experienced an AQI of 174.
When the air quality is bad, “to truly protect yourself from smoke, our recommendation is that you don’t go outside,” said Dr. Michael Stacey, physician consultant for Alameda County and chief medical officer for LifeLong Medical Services.
“When you smell smoke in the air, stay indoors and close your windows and your doors and keep the inside air sealed from the outside air as much as possible,” said Stacey. “The face coverings that you wear to protect yourself from COVID are not effective in protecting you from smoke.”
In order to protect you from smoke and particulate matter, N95 masks or respirators must fit well and have to be properly sealed. Otherwise, you can breathe very tiny particles in wildfire smoke that can affect your long term health deep into your lungs and bloodstream, including PM 2.5 particles. This can make existing lung or heart conditions worse if you’re immunocompromised.
If you can’t access clear air, Dr. Stacey recommends visiting cooling centers, which are used during heatwaves and are especially important for people who are unsheltered. You can find the most recent list of Alameda County’s cooling centers here.
The county is also working on opening more cooling centers for use during high temperature and smoke conditions.
Additional tips from environmental health experts:
- Set air conditioning units and carbon systems to recirculate
- Consider purchasing a HEPA air purifier that is non-ozone producing
- Smoke levels can vary a lot during the day, so you may have a chance to do errands, get outside, and open up windows when air quality is better. EPA’s Fire and Smoke Map is one source of information for conditions near your location
- Use a portable air cleaner to reduce indoor air pollution. If you don’t have a portable air cleaner, the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District has instructions for making a DIY air filter using a box fan
- Reduce smoke in your vehicle by closing the windows and vents and running the air conditioner in recirculate mode
- Slow down when driving in smoky conditions
What’s changed since the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm?
Even though it wasn’t a very large fire, the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm, which came on the heels of a five-year drought, broke records at the time in terms of property loss and fatalities. The Firestorm was fueled by strong Diablo winds blowing inland from the Bay, high temperatures, low humidity, and poor coordination among firefighting entities.
Since the ‘91 Firestorm, fire and emergency agencies from Oakland, Berkeley, Orinda, Albany, and the East Bay Regional Park District continue to improve their training and interagency support to protect the East Bay’s hill communities.
But since 1991, fire seasons have gotten longer and started earlier, a trend scientists link to climate change. “It used to be a much more distinct timeframe running from late May and ending with the precipitation in late September,” said Chief Luby, who joined OFD in 1999. In response, fire agencies across the state have focused their resources on high fire danger days and Red Flag Warning days, adding more resources and more trained personnel.
It’s also gotten harder to predict when the season will “start” and when it will end. Luby recalled spending Christmas of 2017 fighting Ventura County’s Thomas Fire—a very late end to the fire season, but what Luby calls the “new norm.”
“It is now much more challenging and taxing on Cal Fire, the mutual aid system, and the city of Oakland,” said Luby. “We are vulnerable until we get the drenching rains in the fall time, but obviously that comes later and we’ve noticed the increase in the Red Flag wind-driven events, which is one of our worst-case scenarios. We know all too well from the Firestorm what wind and fire will do to us with the right conditions.”
How does OFD work with other city and community agencies?
“It’s a team effort on those high fire danger days,” said Luby. “We need our law enforcement partners to help us with evacuation warnings or evacuation orders. We need the Department of Transportation to help us with street closures, and Parks and Recs to assist with closing Joaquin Miller Park.”
While OFD has mandatory minimum staffing levels for its 25 stations, trucks, and engines, Luby says there’s always a need for more resources, whether it’s for mutual aid—help from other agencies—or new engines. Following civil unrest and protests in Oakland, a larger discussion around funding has arrived with the recent creation of a task force to examine the city’s budget.
“We are entering into conversations about reimagining public safety,” said OFD public information officer Michael Hunt. “I think there’s gonna be a lot of conversations down the road about the potential draw down of OPD funding, what that means for other departments, and how money will move to meet new expectations that the community has.”
At the community level, the Oakland Firesafe Council is working with the Claremont Canyon Conservancy and other community organizations to establish a regional wildfire prevention district for the East Bay. The Council is raising funds to hire a facilitator to work with cities, PG&E, U.C. Berkeley, and the East Bay Regional Park District.
“We feel in the long term we’re only going to be protected if we have regional wildfire prevention,” said Sue Piper, president of the Oakland Firesafe Council, who lost her home in the ‘91 Firestorm. “The fires we’re recently seeing make that case— we’ve never seen fires that have covered across five counties at one time.”
Correction: This story previously suggested that the Oakland Firesafe Council was formed soon after 1991 Firestorm. It was formed in 2014. We previously described the tools used by AirNow to track air quality in Oakland as “sensors”; they are monitors. We also misspelled the last name of Jerri Randrup.