The big picture
- How dangerous are wildfires this season?
- How at-risk is the urban East Bay to wildland fire?
- What’s the history of wildfires in Berkeley?
- What’s being done to reduce the risk of wildfires in Berkeley?
- What constitutes dangerous activity during fire season and how should I report it?
- Which apps and websites can help me during a wildfire?
- What does a Red Flag Warning mean?
- Why should I preemptively relocate during Extreme Fire Weather and Diablo winds?
- How will I know when to evacuate?
- I’ve been ordered to evacuate. What should I do?
- What should I do if I get trapped during a fire?
- Am I legally required to evacuate? What if I want to protect my home?
- Who will be there to help during and after a wildfire?
- What do wildfires have to do with air pollution? How do distant fires cause pollution in the Bay Area?
- How bad is wildfire smoke for my health?
- I’ve had COVID-19. What do I need to know about wildfire smoke?
- How can I protect myself from wildfire smoke? When do I need to wear a mask or stay indoors?
- Which masks best protect against wildfire smoke?
- How can I reduce the impact of wildfire smoke inside of my home?
- How can I monitor air quality in my neighborhood?
- How do I protect my property against wildfire?
- Do defensible space regulations apply to my property?
- What does it mean to harden my home against fire?
- What help is available if I can’t afford the high costs of fire prevention?
- I rent. What should I know about wildfire safety?
- Should I use sprinklers or hose down my yard or deck during a fire? (No!)
- My fire insurance was canceled. What should I do?
What does a Red Flag Warning mean?
The National Weather Service issues Red Flag Warnings and Fire Weather Watches when conditions are ripe for wildfires. This is to alert local fire agencies as well as the public.
A Red Flag Warning is called when weather conditions pose an extreme fire risk for the next 24 hours. A Fire Watch alert means fire conditions are gearing up to a high risk within a few hours to days. Extreme Fire Weather is announced by the Berkeley Fire Department on Red Flag days when low humidity and sustained winds are forecast, making conditions especially treacherous.
Bad fire weather includes any combination of strong or fast winds, dry vegetation, low humidity, and lightning.
The urban East Bay usually gets around 20-30 Red Flag Warnings a year, in the late spring, summer, and fall – often called the fire season. Parks and recreational areas may close, and residents are urged to take extra caution to prevent fires.
On Red Flag days, you should follow this advice:
- Keep your phone on, charged and in your pocket throughout the day.
- Fill up your tank with gas and pack your trunk with your go bag and extra water. Keep in mind that garage doors operating on electricity may not open, but avoid parking on the street.
- Avoid activities that could cause a spark.
- Be prepared to rapidly evacuate if needed.
Authorities say you should strongly consider preemptive relocation on Red Flag days, especially during Extreme Fire Weather and Diablo winds.
Why should I preemptively relocate during Extreme Fire Weather and Diablo winds?
Berkeley Fire declares “Extreme Fire Weather” on a subset of Red Flag days, when strong winds and low humidity are forecast, creating “especially risky conditions.”
“Fires that spread under Extreme Fire Weather conditions can quickly become catastrophic,” the department advises.
While Berkeley saw 25 Red Flag days in 2020, just two of them were Extreme Fire Weather days.
Berkeley Fire recently took a close look at larger hill or wildfires in the Berkeley-Oakland region dating back to the 1991 Oakland firestorm, and similar to historical research by the Hills Emergency Forum, found that the most severe wildfires in this area all happened during Extreme Fire Weather.
Most of Berkeley’s Extreme Fire Weather is driven by Diablo winds, so named because after flowing over the Sierras, they often travel over and down Mount Diablo.
They are dry, hot, fierce currents which 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 cool, moist winds that come off the ocean.
The more common west winds, which blow east from the Pacific Ocean, can also create Extreme Fire Weather.
Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Keith May’s plea to people in hillside fire zones is to seriously consider preemptively relocating during Extreme Fire Weather. Especially, he says, people with mobility problems, large families or anything that could slow an evacuation.
Firefighters cannot control a wind-driven fire, May said. “That’s like asking a fire engine to go out and stop a tornado.”
The preemptive relocation guidance is also tied to obstacles posed to firefighters by the Berkeley Hills’ mountain topography, dense vegetation and many narrow, winding roads. “When these roadways are packed with cars and people trying to escape a fire, it will be really difficult for us to get responders up into the hills to fight the fire,” May said.
Officials are searching for language strong enough to communicate how dire their advice is to preemptively relocate during Extreme Fire Weather and Diablo winds. Berkeley Fire has urged residents to “take as much responsibility as you can” and “control your own destiny.”
Relocating on all Red Flag days may make the most sense for you, with fire experts getting louder with this line of advice.
“Whether people believe in global warming or climate change, these large fires are increasing. People typically only leave after a fire starts,” May said. “We’re trying to cultivate a new mindset.”
Several Berkeley hotels have offered discounts on Red Flag days, targeting people relocating from high-risk fire zones.
Correction: A previous version of this guide quoted a CalFire captain who stated erroneously that a fire can move at 300 yards per second. The captain had confused the total rate of expansion per second of 2018 Camp Fire with its forward rate of spread. A wildfire’s maximum speed is actually about 9 to 12.5 mph, though flying embers have the potential to ignite buildings far in front of a fire.
How will I know when to evacuate?
If you feel threatened, leave immediately. Do not wait for an evacuation order.
If you see or experience any of the following, consider evacuating without waiting for an official order:
- Visible fire in an adjacent home
- Visible fire in a home close by with strong winds
- Strong winds carrying smoke and/or embers through or over your neighborhood
Officials will notify you of an evacuation order as early as possible.
This year, Alameda County launched a new software system called Zonehaven to guide evacuations. Memorize your zone number. In an emergency, use Zonehaven’s real-time evacuation map to see where to go. Evacuations are ordered by zone.
Berkeley is set up to give evacuation warnings and orders in several ways
- From AC Alert, the countywide warning system, which sends notifications via text, phone call, email, social media and push alert. You must opt in or register in advance.
Emergency planners are urging everyone who lives or works in Alameda County to sign up for AC Alert, which sends notifications of many kinds of incidents from evacuation orders to hazardous air, to traffic jams to missing people. Alerts are directed to impacted areas. When you register, you choose your preferences for alerts, and how you want to get them.
Emergency alerts such as evacuation orders and Extreme Fire Weather warnings 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 are sent out only by email, social media and push alerts through the Everbridge app.
There are two ways to sign up: the website and the app.
Once you download the Everbridge app, you can sign up for AC Alerts or link your existing account. If you’ve turned on push notifications, you’ll get all alerts, emergency and nonemergency. Otherwise, you’ll only get emergency alerts. Here’s a four-step guide and a video explaining how to sign up for AC Alerts through the Everbridge app.
Whether you sign up for AC Alerts via the website or the app, you’re in the system, and ready to get alerts, warnings and advisories using the contact information you enter.
- From Nixle.
Nixle, another emergency messaging system, provides text and email alerts from local public safety agencies, including the Berkeley police and fire departments, which send emails and texts for emergencies and other incidents. (Nixle is also owned by the Everbridge company.)
Or text your zip code to 888777.
- From first responders knocking door-to-door and broadcasting messages from helicopters.
In an emergency, you may receive alerts directly from first-responders going door-to-door in impacted areas, or from messages broadcast through loudspeakers from helicopters.
- Through a public address siren system.
Berkeley is installing a siren system with voice capacity that should be completed by the end of the year.
- From local radio and television broadcasting evacuation information.
Tune your car’s radio to 1610 AM for Berkeley emergency information and instructions. You can also monitor KQED 88.5 FM or KCBS 740 AM for updates.
- On Twitter.
A number of city and county agencies share emergency alerts and other information on Twitter.
- Alameda County: @AlamedaCoAlert, @AlamedaCoFire, @ACSOSheriffs
- Berkeley: @CityofBerkeley, @berkeleypolice
Know your zone
No matter how you receive your emergency alerts, it will be helpful to know your evacuation zone. As of June 2021, evacuation in all areas of Alameda County is guided through a software planning tool called Zonehaven that features a real-time map of alerts and evacuations called Zonehaven Aware. Warnings and instructions via all methods — texts, calls, emails — will be directed to specific zones, using the Nixle/Everbridge app. For example, People’s Park is in zone “BER-E056.”
There are three types of emergency alerts
- Evacuation Warning: Sent when there is an active fire that may threaten your location. Authorities will give this warning to give you as much time as possible to be ready to evacuate. You should get your vehicle and home ready while monitoring. You don’t have to wait for the official word from authorities if you don’t feel safe in your home.
- Evacuation Order: This means to evacuate immediately. Don’t take precious seconds to gather belongings or ready your home. Follow instructions to leave the area.
- Shelter-in-Place: A familiar term in the pandemic or during days of heavy wildfire smoke drifting in from other places, it’s rarely used in an active fire. If used, it means current conditions make it too dangerous to evacuate. If that is the case, the order will be a last-ditch effort, and you will likely be instructed to seek the safest nearby building or non-burnable area, like a pool or other shallow water.
Evacuation orders used to be called “voluntary” and “mandatory,” but following the 2017-18 fire season, Cal OES adopted more standardized language.
Who will most likely have to evacuate?
People who live in the Berkeley Hills are more likely than those in the flats to evacuate due to wildfire danger because those neighborhoods are closest to wildlands and carry the most severe fire risks. That’s why prevention regulations are focused there.
By the time fire reaches neighborhoods further down the hill, firefighters have more time to respond. But anywhere with fire fuel — structures, wood fences, dry or flammable vegetation — is vulnerable.
Fog helps dampen fire risk because it adds moisture to the air and ground; people living east of the hills aren’t so lucky. But Berkeley and other East Bay communities hugging the San Francisco Bay still experience plenty of days when temperatures are warmer, with no fog in sight.
And it’s getting worse. Data show that drought and dry conditions are increasing throughout California. The state’s latest comprehensive “Climate Change Assessment,” published in 2019, found:
- In the Bay Area, future fire activity will be driven by both changes in urban development and changes in climate.
- Warming temperatures (which create drought) combined with expansion of the wildland-urban interface are projected to increase fire risk in most of the Bay Area.
- Land use planning, together with fire-safe building standards and near-building vegetation management, are important strategies for managing future fire risk to people and structures.
Flatland residents can also be affected by evacuations starting in the hills, with massive traffic jams and congestion, not to mention fear and chaos.
During an East Bay wildland fire that’s triggering warnings or evacuations, experts say all residents should be vigilant, keep an eye on the news, and pay attention to the details of alerts. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to wait for an evacuation order. If you feel unsafe, leave!
I’ve been ordered to evacuate. What should I do?
If you have been ordered to evacuate, leave your home immediately. Get your family, their go bags, any pets and get into your car. If you have an evacuation plan, follow it. A plan can help you stay calm.
Evacuations in Alameda County are guided through a software planning tool called Zonehaven that features a real-time map of alerts and evacuations called Zonehaven Aware.
The American Red Cross has a shelter tool on its website. During an emergency you can enter your address or zip code and find open shelters. The Zonehaven map is automatically populated with Red Cross evacuation centers, and will direct you to these when appropriate. In the centers, you will sleep on a cot in a large shared space with many other evacuees. There will be room for your pet to stay in a kennel in Berkeley evacuation centers.
Large shelters in the area could include the Oakland Coliseum or Golden Gate Fields, but much depends on the fire.
If you can’t drive or roads are blocked:
- The Berkeley Hills have many footpaths maintained by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association. In some neighborhoods, it will be faster to evacuate on footpaths than on city streets.
If roads are clear and you can drive:
- Leave your car windows up with your external vents shut off and your headlights on.
- Tune your car’s radio to 1610 AM for Berkeley emergency information and instructions. You can also monitor KQED 88.5 FM or KCBS 740 AM for updates.
- The non-driver should open the Zonehaven map, or the Waze traffic map, on a cell phone for real-time information on evacuation routes and evacuation points, or places to go.
- First responders and others could be directing traffic. If you don’t have access to a real-time map and you don’t see anyone helping, follow your instincts for getting to safety, usually heading downhill away from the wildland area or active fire.
- If you must leave your car, park in a location that does not block traffic (blocking sidewalks is acceptable) and evacuate on foot. It is critical that you keep the roads clear for first responders.
- Take familiar routes to the freeway or flatlands. It would be extremely rare for a wildland fire to reach the shoreline of the Bay. The instinct to flee danger is strong, but avoid clogged freeways if possible. These are also used by first responders coming from other areas.
- In most circumstances, even when surrounded by wildfire, experts recommend you stay in your car as you are safer there.
- If you must shelter in place in your car, look for a large open space such as a parking lot or field, and call 911 to report your location.
Do I have time to check on my elderly neighbor who is hearing-impaired?
Berkeley Assistant Fire Chief Keith May says that as you evacuate, you should do a quick check on your neighbors to the left, right, front and back.
Bang on the door. Shout. Rap hard on a window. Call if you have their number. Hopefully, people who can’t quickly or easily evacuate will have already preemptively relocated, but evacuation is a time when neighbors looking after neighbors can save lives.
During Red Flag warnings — before an evacuation may be ordered — talk with your frail or disabled neighbors to make sure they have a plan.
What should I do if I get trapped during a fire?
If you’re trapped in your vehicle:
- If possible, park your vehicle in an area clear of vegetation and power lines, such as an open field or a parking lot. Do not block the road.
- Keep the engine running and headlights on. Roll up windows and set the ventilation system to re-circulate to reduce smoke in the car.
- Cover yourself with a wool blanket or jacket.
- Lie on the floor of your vehicle.
- Use your cellphone to call 911. Advise officials that you are trapped and of your location (address or intersection is best).
If you’re trapped while on foot:
- Go to an area clear of vegetation — a ditch, depression, or body of water, if possible.
- Lie face down, cover up your body.
- Use your cellphone to call 911. Advise officials that you are trapped and of your location (address or intersection is best).
If you’re trapped while in your home:
- Keep members of your household together.
- Call 911. Advise officials that you are trapped and of your location (address or intersection is best).
- Fill your sinks and tubs with cold water.
- Keep doors and windows closed but unlocked.
- Stay inside your house.
- Stay away from exterior walls and windows.
Note: It will get hot in the house but it is safer than being outside.
Am I legally required to evacuate? What if I want to protect my home?
Under state law, anyone who refuses to leave a mandatory evacuation zone or enters an evacuation area can also be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.
In recent large wildland fires, law enforcement has used the law to crack down on trespassers and looters found in areas under evacuation.
Clearing evacuation zones helps everyone stay safe — residents and first responders. It also allows firefighters to focus on the fire, rather than diverting resources to people who refuse to leave.
Who will be there to help during and after a wildfire?
Fire agencies have mutual aid agreements, where personnel and equipment from one jurisdiction are tapped to help another. In large fires, it’s common for multiple agencies to respond. This can even include fire agencies from other states, depending on the availability of resources.
Emergency operations included in mutual aid agreements include communication and dispatch, law enforcement and shelter assistance.
Other likely responses to a major wildfire in Berkeley include:
- American Red Cross: Local chapters of the Red Cross respond to all levels of emergencies. They’ve responded to fires all over California, providing food, temporary shelter and providing evacuees with necessities like diapers and coolers. They’ve even given supplies to people returning to what’s left of their homes after all the flames have been extinguished.
- California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES): The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services serves as a centralized office to help people in large-scale emergencies. In the case of wildfires, OES links people to available resources, from debris removal to available funds from the federal government. Each county, including Alameda, also has an OES office, under the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees local incidents, working with the state.
- FEMA: Once a California wildfire is declared a disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sends resources — including people, equipment and money — to help assist local efforts. For example, for the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, FEMA provided $91 million to help people with housing and other needs and nearly $1.3 billion in public assistance.
Insurance companies: Insurance companies will send out agents to assess damage on properties covered by their policies. They’re the first people you should contact if your home has been damaged in a fire or other natural disaster.
The Berkeley Wildfire Guide is a collaboration between Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. The guide — first published on July 29, 2021, and last updated on June 7, 2022 — was written by Kate Darby Rauch and Brian Krans, edited by Zac Farber and Jacob Simas, designed by Doug Ng and illustrated by T.L. Simons. You can read a version of the guide tailored for Oakland residents on The Oaklandside.
Information overload can be an issue as you plan for emergencies. That’s why we’ve compared information and vetted sources for you, with the aim of providing only credible and recent information from trusted sources.
Sources used in compiling this guide: CalFire, Berkeley Fire Department, Oakland Fire Department, FEMA, Alameda County Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, National Interagency Fire Center, National Wildfire Coordinating Group, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Centers for Disease Control, Pacific Gas & Electric, East Bay Municipal Utility District, East Bay Regional Park District, California Fire Safe Council, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Community Emergency Alert Teams, State Council on Developmental Disabilities, University of California Cooperative Extension, Oakland Animal Services, Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network, Hills Emergency Forum, Alameda County Office of Emergency Services, Oakland Firesafe Council, Diablo Firesafe Council, FIRESafe Marin, Public Health Institute, California Air Resources Board, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, American Red Cross, Kaiser Permanente, Mask Oakland, Zonehaven, ALERTWildfire, City of Mill Valley, City of Ross.
The image illustrating defensible space in the property section of this guide is adapted from the Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide (publication #SP-20-11) with permission from University of Nevada, Reno Extension and the Living With Fire Program.