The first signs of trouble were subtle. For some, it was the strange amber hue of the midday light. Others caught the distinctive scent of burning eucalyptus. By two in the afternoon of September 17, 1923, just about everyone in Berkeley had taken note of the uncommonly warm, dry wind blowing in from the northeast. What they didn’t know was that a small grass fire over the hill in Wildcat Canyon was growing fast, leaping from grass to brush to tree—and it was about to crest the hills of North Berkeley.
On the morning of November 8, 2018, Don Peck awoke to the sound of bombs going off.
“It was boom, boom, boom,” recalls the retired jeweler, who had slept in late after a bout of insomnia the night before. Now, as the 70-year-old struggled to gain full consciousness, he realized it was propane tanks, not bombs, he heard. His town, Paradise, was on fire.
Peck knew that he had probably lost everything—his home, his belongings, his cat.
While it’s not news that the golden state has taken on a crackling red hue from recent wildfires, reports of the fires’ behaviors are blazingly bizarre.
It’s been commonly observed by firefighters that fires slow down at night, according to Scott L. Stephens, UC Berkeley professor of fire science. But a number of recent fires have said “to hell with the slow burn!” and begun spreading quickly even when the sun goes down.
Posted on July 20, 2018 - 2:51pm
Disastrous wildfires are popularly associated with drought. But the North Bay fires followed one of the wettest winters in decades.
The nightly news tends to make things even more confusing. During drought, newscasters sound the alarm about dead trees and the general flammability of parched forests. After wet winters, dire warnings are issued about the abundant growth of grass and brush that will become tinder during the hot, dry days of California’s summer and fall. So are wet winters worse for fires? Or are dry winters worse?
Posted on November 20, 2017 - 4:29pm
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are now in the post mortem phase of the North Bay fire storms, asking what could’ve been done to avoid the tragedy and what can be done in the future to prevent similar conflagrations. Discussions largely have focused on tighter zoning and fire ordinances. Those are appropriate areas to focus on, say many wildfire experts, but municipalities and counties inevitably face pressures that make effective wildfire risk reduction difficult.
Posted on October 30, 2017 - 2:39pm
As the late, great Tom Petty put it, you don’t have to live like a refugee. Except, of course, when you do, as I recently found out.
Or at least, like an evacuee, which can feel distinctly refugee-esque to a citizen of a developed country who has never been forced to leave home and possessions due to conflict or natural catastrophe.
Posted on October 11, 2017 - 3:33pm
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.
Posted on August 7, 2017 - 1:58pm
Next month will mark the 25th anniversary of the Oakland Hills Fire, the epochal conflagration that started on October 19 and, driven by strong northeasterly winds, burned more than 1,500 acres over three days, killing 25 people and destroying some 2,500 homes and 400 apartments.
Anyone who lived in the Bay Area at that time will recall the massive column of smoke that rose from the East Bay during the day and the walls of flame that limned the topography of the hills at night. Those three days felt nothing short of apocalyptic.
Posted on September 22, 2016 - 11:32am
The recent rains have blunted the psychological impact of California’s four-year drought, washing down the streets, perking up the landscaping, and heightening anticipation for a stormy El Nino-driven winter. We know, however, that one wet year is highly unlikely to end water shortages. What we may not fully grasp is that the damage done to the state’s forests is so far reaching that it may be permanent.
Posted on November 12, 2015 - 10:31am
If you have the feeling that “wildfire season” is anything but seasonal these days, you’re right. Drought and climate change are combining to make wildfires a year-round phenomenon in the Golden State and much of the West, a trend that already is changing the character of our forests and straining government budgets.
Posted on September 11, 2015 - 2:39pm
The King Fire continues to rage. As of this writing, it has scorched 87,000 acres of Sierra forest and burned down at least 10 homes and 22 outbuildings. The fire also menaced Berkeley’s Blodgett Forest Research Station, the site of a seminal study on fuel-reduction treatments.
“It got within a mile, and then the wind shifted,” says Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens. “Firefighters have conducted some successful backburning, so the situation is fairly secure.”
Posted on September 23, 2014 - 4:40pm
As the U.S. Forest Service finalizes plans to restore forests torched in last year’s Yosemite-area Rim Fire—the third largest in state history—conservationists are worried that the scheme skimps on environmental protection. Also concerned is one of the state’s top forestry experts, a UC Berkeley professor who warns that replanting trees the traditional way will simply sow the seeds for the next conflagration.
Posted on September 2, 2014 - 12:23pm
Posted on October 27, 2013 - 10:52am
If a transcendent lesson is emerging from the Rim Fire, it’s this: we need to manage our forests aggressively, thinning thick stands of young trees and clearing deadwood on the forest floor. Doing so would reduce fuel in second-growth and third-growth coniferous forests—the kind of fuel that has driven the Rim Fire to become the fifth largest wildfire in the history of the state.
And it would be well worth the cost.
Posted on August 30, 2013 - 12:41pm
With the Rim Fire still sweeping out-of-control through Sierra woodlands, something tugged at our memory: Wasn’t this the same area that burned a couple of decades ago?
Posted on August 26, 2013 - 4:33pm