Last week’s wild fire on Grizzly Peak Boulevard ended up scorching about 20 acres of brush and grass near the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with no major damage to property and no loss of life. That was due in large part to a fuel reduction program pursued by Berkeley Lab since the 1990s, says Scott Stephens, a professor with UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and one of the country’s foremost wildfire experts.
“The lab has done a good job of treating blue gum [eucalyptus] stands around their facilities and generally removing or reducing fuels,” says Stephens, noting the ubiquitous eucalypts that grow across the East bay hills are notorious for their flammability. Due at least partially to Berkeley Lab’s efforts, says Stephens, the fire never “crowned”—that is, it didn’t leap up the “fuel ladders” of brush and branches to the interconnected canopies of the trees, then rage across the landscape.
Firefighters also were able to jump on the flames in short order, due in large part to a signage system put in place by Tom Klatt, Stephens’ predecessor at Berkeley.
“I try not to promote draconian scenarios, but I am concerned about them,” Stephens says. “A fire driven by a strong east wind on a hot day would’ve acted very differently.”
“Tom was concerned about just this kind of situation: a fire breaking out on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, with firefighters delayed because there are so many twists and turns to the road and it can be difficult to determine location,” Stephens said. “So he was able to get a series of sign posts installed up there. Last week’s fire started at sign post 14, and firefighters were able to respond very rapidly because they knew exactly where they were going.”
But the East Bay Hills dodged an incendiary bullet for another reason, Stephens says: On the day the fire ignited, the weather was mild and a west wind was blowing, more or less pushing flames away from Berkeley Lab and the UC Berkeley campus. If the fire had started on a hot day with an east wind—the conditions that prevailed during the disastrous Oakland Hills fire of 1991—things might have concluded tragically.
“I try not to promote draconian scenarios, but I am concerned about them,” Stephens says. “A fire driven by a strong east wind on a hot day would’ve acted very differently. It not only would’ve burned very quickly, but where particularly volatile fuels such as eucalyptus are concerned, it would have thrown embers miles ahead, starting hundreds of spot fires that would also burn explosively and merge. That’s what happened in 1991.”
Normally, wildfires burn more rapidly uphill than downhill, observes Stephens, but in extreme conditions such as those that characterized the Oakland Hills Fire, “the fire overwhelms the topography. If last week’s fire had occurred under Oakland Hills fire conditions, there would’ve been impacts to university property. I’m particularly concerned about the Clark Kerr campus dormitories. They seem at significant risk.”
Stephens has long supported major fuel reduction programs for the East Bay Hills, and was particularly distressed when FEMA pulled funding for a plan to remove eucalyptus and restore native vegetation on land owned by the university along Claremont Canyon. But fuel reduction, he avers, is not enough. Public facilities in the East Bay Hills also need effective response programs. Berkeley Lab evacuated its employees during the Grizzly Peak fire, says Stephens, “and I watched from the campanile for about 45 minutes as cars slowly snaked down the hill. People were particularly vulnerable at that time. If the fire had burned down that road rapidly, as you could expect with a strong east wind, they would’ve been in trouble. The natural instinct for people surrounded by wildfire is to get out of their cars and run, which can put them at even greater risk. Fatalities occurred during the Oakland Hills Fire because of that reaction, and it happens regularly during Australian wildfires.”
Many of Berkeley Lab’s buildings are heavy concrete structures that could be largely impervious to wildfire, particularly given the aggressive fuel reduction policies the lab has pursued for the past 20 years, Stephens observes.
“I think it might be time for them to consider a shelter-in-place policy for their wildfire response strategy,” he says. “It would warrant an evaluation, at least. And they might also consider additional entrances and exits, a major reason the cars were so slow in getting out is because access is so limited. I also think UC needs to revisit and update its evacuation policies for its buildings, including the Clark Kerr dorms.”