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 as well as much of the world are seeing an increase in serious wildfires, which many experts link to climate change. Our state’s recent drought, which ended this winter with days of extreme rainfall, contributed to years of intense fire danger, with dry and dying vegetation. 

This heightened fire risk is abating with the easing of drought conditions. But last year’s heavy precipitation fueled robust plant growth, wild and landscaped, which translates to heavy fuels for fire. 

The concept of a typical fire season based on predictable patterns is disappearing with the weather uncertainties of climate change. Bay Area fire season used to be late summer into fall, with a spate of hot temperatures and dry winds.

Many fire experts are pulling back from predictions. But the general thinking this year is that prime Bay Area fire conditions will stretch later this year, with still-moist soils from winter rains.

According to CalFire, the state’s fire agency, 15 of the state’s 20 most destructive fires—as measured by destroyed structures—have occurred in the past eight years, since 2015. And seven of the state’s 20 most deadly fires have occurred in the past seven 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 landscaping around people’s homes contributes to fire fuel, with many popular species of trees and plants highly combustible. 

The fear is that fires starting either in open space or a yard will spread quickly into densely populated areas, fueled by woodsy yards, and wood homes and other structures.

In the Bay Area’s moist summer fog belt, the East Bay’s wildland fire risk tends to concentrate during dry, warm, and highly 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, which includes much of the East Bay hills. 

A recent jump in fires around the San Francisco Bay shoreline and adjacent freeways and railroad tracks, linked largely to encampments, also poses risks to immediate structures and open space. 

Vegetation fires in these areas, including in the Eastshore State Park, can potentially spread into urban and residential areas, causing death and destruction. These usually aren’t considered wildfires, but any patch of wildland or untended open space, wherever it is, can fuel fire, causing it to grow and spread. 

What’s the history of wildfires in Oakland and Berkeley?

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 wildfires 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 have said throughout the years that not enough is being done to help reduce dangers. They cite large Eucalyptus groves, aging Monterey Pine, and hillsides thick with dry, flammable brush in East Bay Regional Park District land 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. 

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.

The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) continues to chip away at its wildfire management plan, identified as a district priority. This includes removing and/or drastically thinning large groves of Eucalyptus trees, which are considered highly combustible.

EBRPD also regularly uses goats to seasonally thin grasses and brush, and has experimented with controlled burns.

PG&E’s response to wildfire is shifting more than other agencies, with the utility facing criminal culpability and huge fines and penalties for its equipment starting the horrific 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 84 people. PG&E is under intense scrutiny by state regulators, as well as customers.

Among its new and updated programs, PG&E is largely replacing its planned public safety power shut-offs of the past few years (power cuts linked to weather conditions) with a technology-based response called enhanced powerline safety settings.

This approach, introduced last year, uses highly sensitive power line sensors that essentially cut power immediately when triggered by an unusual movement on a  line, such as the weight of a falling tree or tree branch. Think of a tripping circuit breaker.

The technology is in place in all high-fire risk areas served by PG&E, which includes swaths of the East Bay hills. It’s activated and deactivated based on the weather.

And, it’s already controversial, as conditions in summer heat waves have triggered numerous sudden power outages,  leaving people without air conditioning or refrigeration. Critics say ratepayers are suffering from the utility’s use of lower-cost high-tech prevention methods. At the same time, some are saying this same technology could have saved lives in the recent deadly fires in Hawaii. 

In its expanding power cut toolbox, PG&E will continue using planned public safety power shut-offs 

during some extreme fire conditions, but assumes they’ll become rare with the introduction of enhanced powerline safety settings.  

Public safety power shut-offs are usually conducted with advance notice of several hours or even days, which gives people time to prepare. 

Both kinds of outages may affect thousands of customers at the turn of a switch, depending on power grid patterns.

The utility is also pressing on with system “hardening” in all high wildfire risk areas, including in the East Bay hills, or updating equipment to increase its resistance to winds, sparks, and flame.

Hardening is an alternative to burying equipment underground, another piece of PG&E’s approach. The utility says it’s continuing with its 2021 vow to underground 10,000 miles of utility lines in high-risk fire zones. However, corporate comments made to investors in early 2023, reported by the Reuters news agency, said PG&E is slowing down undergrounding. And earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that PG&E is halting tree cutting in favor of equipment hardening. 

PGE is also using drones for fire detection and testing robotic ‘burn bots’ to clear vegetation. 

The East Bay Municipal Water District is working to ensure a water supply even when power goes out, with mobile generators at pumping stations.

A once-envisioned East Bay wildfire joint powers authority has been scuttled for a Memorandum of Understanding among agencies serving fire-vulnerable areas of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.  The MOU is in the early stages of development.

Community wildfire prevention groups are expanding, including Firewise communities (a program of the National Fire Protection Association), and FireSafe Councils, with a new Berkeley FireSafe Council, and a growing Oakland FireSafe Council, which serves all of Alameda County.

Interest in community or neighborhood programs is increasing in part because this is one of a set of prevention requirements for lowering homeowner insurance rates under a new state law

To be eligible for lower rates, several prevention steps (called Safer from Wildfire) must be completed. The impact of the law won’t be clearly understood for a year or more, as the rate-setting regulatory process takes time. 

The work of neighborhood Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) also continues. 

As organizations, agencies, and groups fight for wildfire prevention, funding for the work remains highly competitive, as communities statewide seek  CalFire grants, California Fire Foundation grants, and state budget allotments.

Laws to keep an eye on

As risks for wildfire increase, so too does legislation to address the consequences. Some laws to keep an eye on:

  • Senate Bill 190 (2019) required the state Fire Marshal to develop updated building standards, or home hardening, for fire risk reduction
  • Assembly Bill 788 (2023) tightens state budget spending reporting and accountability related to wildfire
  • Assembly Bill 38 (2019) requires home sellers to disclose fire risks and home hardening measures to buyers
  • Assembly Bill 3074 (2020) updated fuel reduction requirements around buildings in very high-fire-hazard severity zones, including requiring a new Zone Zero, ember-resistant zones within 5 feet of structures, with little to no vegetation.

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 police: 510-777-3333  
  • Berkeley police: 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 threats 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 calls, and push alerts. (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 an 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 alerts

Zonehaven (online map): Utilized across Alameda, Contra Costa, and most state counties, Zonehaven software guides evacuations.

For residents, it starts with your zone number, based on where you live. 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 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 between 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 is 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. 

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.