At the tail end of this month, the world’s hottest month on record, it is easy to forget California’s extremely wet winter. It is easy to forget that the bronze hills surrounding the San Francisco Bay area were just green and growing only weeks ago. But for those that remember, the tall, golden grass is quintessentially California – beautiful, fleeting and absolutely hazardous. The rain we received this winter will drive the fires of the future. Whether this year or next, there is a certainty that California’s golden hills will continue to burn.
As someone who spent seven years fighting America’s western wildfires, I worry. I know a catastrophic wildfire can happen here. And I am not alone – all of the long-term residents that experienced the 1991 Tunnel Fire saw it happen. It can be easy to forget that one of the country’s most catastrophic wildfires occurred in the East Bay, but if you ask any long-term residents, they have not forgotten. They might even tell you that the fire conditions in the hills today look remarkably similar to how they did in 1991.
It can also be easy to forget that safety is rooted in small, anticipatory actions. As drivers, we cannot ensure that everyone on I-80 behaves themselves, but we have control over our choice to wear seatbelts and drive safely. We cannot ensure that our gas appliances will not off-gas carbon monoxide, but we can install detectors to alert us. We cannot ensure that people will not burglarize, but we can lock our doors on our way out. Just as so, we cannot eliminate the threat of wildfire from our hills, but we can ensure that our homes and our neighbors’ homes are hardened against wildfire to prevent fire’s spread.
What sets wildfire risk apart from other hazards is that individual action fails without collective action. Once fire captures one structure, it grows in strength and can more easily spread to another one nearby. Or in other words, we are responsible to ourselves, but also to one another to keep our community safe.
In Berkeley, residents are organizing and carrying out on-the-ground cleanups to reduce the risk for everyone. The Berkeley FireSafe Council monitors and implements projects focused on removing hazardous vegetation, such as eucalyptus debris. They have cleared almost 75 tons of hazardous fuel from our neighborhoods.
Berkeley FireSafe Council’s greatest strength is its ability to engage with organizations and people – to work with jurisdictions such as East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) and the Berkeley Fire Department to act on the growing risk that exists in the fire-prone hills of the East Bay.
Berkeley FireSafe Council identifies five fundamental actions to prevent catastrophic wildfire: hazardous fuel removal, vegetation management along the city’s eastern boundary, home hardening, defensible space, and urban forestry. The Council and the fire department are open to all Berkeley residents to support wildfire education and anticipatory action. Neither has forgotten that we live in a fire-prone landscape that is only growing hotter. More information about the Berkeley FireSafe Council and its “The Five Fundamentals of Wildfire Prevention” can be found on its website.
As the hills turn golden this summer, it may be easier to remember the risk we incur to live here, but we must not forget the small actions that will make us safer.
Harrison Raine is a UC Berkeley graduate student in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning and serves on the city of Berkeley’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission. He is an expert in natural hazards and disaster management.