A smokey silhouette of the Downtown Oakland skyline from the Berkeley Hills. The hazy is smoke as a result of multiple wildfires surrounding the Bay Area. August 19, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

How to live with the threat of wildfires?

Assessing wildland fire risk is an educated guess. Factors such as weather, season, humidity, wind speeds and directions, topography, vegetation, historical climate trends, land use and human activity all play into predicting fire risk.

It’s well known, for example, that summer lightning storms over the Sierra Nevada start fires. Blazes started by utility wires, campfires, BBQs, fireworks, cigarette butts thrown out a car window or arson, however, can’t be predicted. But data can shed light on how these fires might behave and the damage they might cause.

California and the rest of the Western United States are seeing an increase in serious wildfires, which many experts link to climate change. The state’s continuing drought, likely worsened by climate change, is a major contributing factor to heightened fire danger. 

According to CalFire, the state’s fire agency, 14 of the state’s 20 most destructive fires — as measured by destroyed structures — have occurred in the past seven years, since 2015. And seven of the state’s 20 most deadly fires have occurred in the past five years.

This includes Northern California wildfires in Napa, Sonoma, Butte, Yolo, Lake, Colusa, Plumas and Yuba counties, as well as the 1991 Oakland firestorm, also called the Tunnel Fire.

How at-risk is the urban East Bay to wildland fire?

The primary wildfire threat to the inner East Bay comes from the open space of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) and East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) to the east.

These natural and recreational treasures elevate fire risks for many residents, as they border densely populated neighborhoods. This includes swaths of the Oakland and Berkeley hills. All of these areas, called the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), are in the state’s very high fire hazard severity zones.

The fear is that fires starting in dry open space will spread quickly over the urban interface into densely populated areas with woodsy yards, homes and other structures.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of national agencies that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bay Area is experiencing an “exceptional drought” this summer, the worst level. 

This may underlie a historic sudden tree die-off in the East Bay Regional Park District, which is sounding major wildfire risk alarms. 

In the Bay Area’s moist summer fog belt, the East Bay’s wildland fire risk tends to concentrate during dry, warm, windy conditions. This is different from many surrounding communities outside of the fog belt, which face months-long continual extreme fire danger. At the same time, weather and fire are unpredictable. Being prepared is essential for anyone living or working in a high-risk fire zone. 

What’s the history of wildfires in Oakland?

The 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm wiped out swaths of the East Bay hills.
The 1991 Oakland firestorm wiped out swaths of the East Bay hills. Credit: Cal OES

Concerns over wildfire are etched in the history of the East Bay hills. 

In October 1991, gusting dry winds spread a firestorm through 2.5 square miles of mostly residential neighborhoods, destroying nearly 3,500 homes and apartment units in what would be known as the Oakland firestorm. After two days, 25 people were dead and another 150 injured. The fire started in a grassy hillside lot in Berkeley, near the Caldecott Tunnel and Oakland border.

The firestorm, which Caltrans officially called the Tunnel Fire, wasn’t technically a wildfire as it started and spread in populated areas. But it represents a breed of particularly destructive urban-rural-suburban wildfires that feed on dry, thick residential landscaping and open space, mixed with dense houses and other structures, many of them wood. In Oakland and Berkeley, steep hills and narrow streets add significant challenges for firefighters and evacuation.

The firestorm’s combined loss of life, injuries and economic loss — what would be more than $4.4 billion today — made it one of the worst fires in American history. It was also a wake-up call for the East Bay, exposing a vulnerability to wildland fire that is only growing.

Deep dive research conducted in 2001 by the Hills Wildfire Working Group, a multiagency group formed in response to the Oakland firestorm, found that between 1923 and 1998, at least 10 major fires erupted in densely populated areas of the East Bay hills, claiming homes and lives. 

Most of these fires occurred during the Diablo winds — dry, hot, fierce currents that typically blow for only 1-3 days a year with speeds up to 45 mph. They blow from northeast to southwest, a switch from the Bay Area’s usual winds, which come off the ocean. 

The research also found three major fires that started during the more common west winds, which blow east from the Pacific Ocean. 

People often point to a 1923 Berkeley fire that started in Wildcat Canyon, and spread as far as Shattuck Avenue, downtown, as evidence of just how far downhill wildfires can travel. That fire destroyed 580 homes with an unknown number of deaths.

What’s being done to reduce the risk of wildfires in Oakland?

Many residents of East Bay high-risk fire zones say not enough is being done to help reduce dangers. They cite large Eucalyptus groves, aging Monterey Pine, and hillsides thick with dry, flammable brush, smack against residential neighborhoods. They question the sufficiency of evacuation planning. They cite the expense of fire-proofing a house or keeping a yard cleared. Not to mention what to do about tree-loving neighbors who don’t buy into the risks. 

As the East Bay hills’ vulnerability to wildland fire grows due to drought and other weather patterns — highlighted with each destructive California wildfire — local residents, government entities, land managers, emergency operations experts and first responders scramble to adjust.

This response can move slowly, compared with the impacts of drought, heat, wind and dense, dry vegetation in fire-prone areas.

But there is progress.

Recent developments include Alameda County’s adoption of Zonehaven evacuation software, the growing expanse of Alert Wildfire’s camera network, state legislation enforcing defensible space regulations in high fire zones, the push to educate the public about warning systems such as AC Alert and Nixle and siren systems that operate when power is out — existing in Oakland and in development in Berkeley.

Funding for government and nonprofit wildfire prevention is increasing, including CalFire grants, California Fire Foundation grants, and items in the state’s annual budget.

Accessing much of this money is highly competitive among California communities facing wildland fire risks.

The East Bay Regional Park District cites budget constraints and a lengthy permitting process as major hurdles to vegetation clearing and management. But the board overseeing the district has identified wildland fire prevention as a primary goal. Work is planned as funding becomes available, guided by the district’s hazard reduction and resource management plan, which includes a plan for reducing fuels in parkland atop the Berkeley and Oakland hills

Controlled burns are aimed at removing the “ladder” fuels that allow grass fires to become infernos. Park staff clear dense underbrush, thin forests and remove hazardous trees. And a herd of nearly 10,000 cattle, sheep and goats munch their way toward greater fire safety. Oakland Fire even uses a herd of up to 2,000 goats to graze and clear overgrowth in steep parklands difficult for humans to traverse and too close to houses to do controlled burns. 

In 2021, the park district received a California Coastal Conservancy Wildfire Resilience grant for removal of Eucalyptus groves near the Tilden Nature Area, and at the far north end of Wildcat Canyon. 

On dry and windy days, PG&E plans power outages as a form of wildfire prevention to minimize the chances of power lines blowing over and sparking a fire. The utility says it’s also making its wire system safer in high risk fire zones, including in the Oakland Hills by putting in stronger utility poles, covering power lines and installing wires underground in targeted areas. 

The utility is under intense legal and public pressure to improve the condition and maintenance of its infrastructure, having been convicted of deadly safety violations that caused some of the state’s most destructive fires, including the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County. PG&E recently announced plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines, after years of resistance. 

The East Bay Municipal Water District has installed back-up generators at its wastewater facilities and rented additional generators for pumping facilities to ensure operations during planned or sudden power outages in fire season.

Concern over wildfire response led a group of Oakland and Berkeley residents to launch an effort to form a new East Bay Hills Wildland Fire Joint Powers Authority, which is currently in the planning stage. In the meantime, Berkeley says it’s partnering with Oakland, UC Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Park District to improve coordination between overlapping jurisdictions this fire season.

Local neighborhood Community Emergency Response Teams and other volunteer organizations aim for faster-paced action at the neighborhood level, often competing for the same pots of funding as other groups. 

Oakland closes Joaquin Miller Park and restricts off-street night parking on Grizzly Peak Boulevard on Red Flag days. The city has a fire safety parking project in the works, which is looking at ways to keep narrow streets passable on high-risk fire days. 

EBRPD closes many parks on Red Flag days. 

Laws to keep an eye on

Some legal watchers expect more regulations around home hardening — or making your home less vulnerable to fire — in the future, though funding for this will be challenging. As risks for wildfire increase, so too does legislation to address the consequences. Much is in the works. Some laws have been adopted, including:

  • Senate Bill 190 (2019), which requires the state Fire Marshal to develop updated building standards, or home hardening, for fire risk reduction.
  • Assembly Bill 38 (2019), which requires home sellers to disclose fire risks and home hardening measures to buyers.
  • Assembly Bill 3074 (2020), which allows fire agencies to tighten fuel reduction requirements around buildings in very high fire hazard severity zones, including requiring ember-resistant zones within 5 feet of structures, with little to no vegetation.
  • Senate Bill 85 and Assembly Bill 79 (2020), which is a wildfire funding package. 

Learn more about the new state laws in updates from Nolo Press and the Public Policy Institute of California

What constitutes dangerous activity during fire season and how should I report it?

One of the biggest ways anyone can help with wildland fire is to report anything you see, hear or smell that could mean fire. This includes active or recent signs of campfire, candles, stoves and lamps. It also includes fireworks. 

Smoking is illegal in city, regional and state parks, whether tobacco or cannabis, as are any drugs that involve matches or flames.

All of these activities are seriously concerning in fire season — even more so on Red Flag days.

You don’t need to get personally involved.

For suspicious activities, concern about people who may be at risk from fire, or recent indications of fire or flames call the non-emergency police lines:

  • Oakland: 510-777-3333  
  • Berkeley: 510-981-5900
  • UC Berkeley police: 510-642-6760
  • East Bay Regional Park District (which has its own police and fire departments): 510-881-1833. The park district also has an online form for reporting incidents and a confidential tip line: 510-690-6521.

For hazards or emergencies in action, call 911.

Which apps and websites can help me during a wildfire?

Technology is rapidly expanding the capacity of wildfire preparedness, prevention and prediction. 

For many emergency planners, this is exciting, with the roll-out of products like real-time evacuation software and solar-powered warning sirens with voice capacity.

But for much of the public, it’s overwhelming. There’s a growing variety of online tools, apps and maps out there, some of which might help save a life or a property.

We rounded up a few you should know about ahead of time. 

Get alerted to immediate wildfire threat in your neighborhood

AC Alert (app, text, email, phone, push alert, social media): AC Alert is Alameda County’s emergency warning system for life-threatening situations such as an order to evacuate. It is the only warning system designated for this and requires you to sign up or opt-in to receive alerts.

Register on the AC Alert website or download the Everbridge App to receive emergency alerts via text, email, phone call and push alert. (Emergency alerts such as evacuation orders are sent out by all means available — text, phone, email, social media, push alert. Non-emergency or advisory alerts such as Red Flag Warnings or traffic incidents or are sent out only by email, social media and push alerts through the Everbridge app.)

To access: Sign up for warnings on the AC Alert website or by downloading the Everbridge app.

Nixle (email, text): Nixle is an alert system local police and fire departments use to send messages on crime, traffic, weather, and events.  There may be overlap between AC Alert and Nixle messages, but warnings for life-threatening situations will come first via AC Alert. Local agencies may tap Nixle for follow-ups to emergency alerts.

To access: Sign up for Nixle alerts online.

Get your evacuation zone number to help you understand evacuation alert

Zonehaven (online map): In 2021, Alameda County launched a new software system called Zonehaven to guide evacuations. Memorize your zone number. In an emergency, listen for your zone number on the radio (KCBS 740 AM, KGO 810 AM or KNBR 680 AM), look for it on Twitter and Facebook and use Zonehaven’s real-time evacuation map to see where to go. ​​Evacuations are ordered by zone.

During an emergency, the map will offer real-time useful information, such as areas under evacuation and the best evacuation route for your neighborhood. And it will be updated with helpful information such as evacuation shelters and weather.

To access:  Memorize your Zonehaven evacuation zone number and bookmark the map

Keep up on extreme weather and other emergencies in your area and beyond

National Weather Service (online maps, warnings): On its alerts page, the National Weather Service website has several useful maps and tools, including a “latest warnings” map for extreme weather. You can enter your zip code or zoom in on the map. The warnings on the map are advisories, not real-time emergency alerts.

The National Weather Service also has a fire weather page with professional forecasting maps, weather warnings by state, drought maps and information on WEA alerts and weather radios.

To access: Go to the National Weather Service website

Federal Emergency Management Administration (app, text): FEMA sends real-time extreme weather alerts from the National Weather Service via app or text message. You can receive alerts for up to five locations nationwide, which is good for travel planning or helping you keep tabs on loved ones.

The FEMA app also sends out safety tips, shelter locations and more. The app will not send local emergency action alerts, such as to evacuate or shelter in place. But it can help you plan and easily share information with others.

FEMA’s dedicated text message number is 43362. Text “prepare” to this number to subscribe to messages. Receive periodic safety tips on numerous disasters by texting the type of event (“blackout,” “earthquake,” “fire,” “flood,” “hurricane,” or “tornado”) to 43362. 

Text “shelter” and your zip code to receive a list of emergency shelters near you. Text “DRC” and your zip code to see a list of disaster recovery centers near you. Note: This feature currently directs users to the map of emergency shelters on the Red Cross website and the map of disaster recovery centers on the FEMA website.

To access: Download the FEMA app. Text “prepare” to 43362 to sign up for the message service.

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA): These alerts are sent by authorized government agencies such as the National Weather Service, FEMA, and local police and fire departments to WEA-capable phones via your provider.

They emit a unique tone and look like a text message.

The WEA system is a partnership of FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission.

There are four types of WEA alerts: Presidential, sent by the President for national emergencies (note, this has never been done yet); Imminent Threat Alerts, for threatening emergencies such as evacuation orders; Public Safety Alerts, for warnings that may not be imminent, such as extreme weather; and Amber Alerts for abducted children. 

You’ll receive WEA alerts even if you’re on or using your phone, since they’re broadcast on a special channel. 

Most phones made after 2012 are WEA-capable, but confirm your phone’s capability with your wireless phone provider. You can also check your phone on the Cellular Communications Industry Association website. 

To access: Free. No sign up required. Check your phone’s capability, and don’t turn the WEA alert option off.

Get mobile safety tips and a map of emergency shelters

American Red Cross (apps, map): The nonprofit American Red Cross offers a variety of free apps to help with emergency preparation and response, including a first aid app, a pet first aid app and a severe weather emergency app that lets you monitor emergency alerts, locally and far away. 

American Red Cross menu of emergency preparation apps.

The Red Cross also has an emergency shelter map which is populated in real-time in disasters.

To access: Bookmark the Red Cross’s shelter map, download the apps and see other information about wildfire safety.