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Northern California braces once again for wildfires


The Bay Area, including Napa-Sonoma wine country and the Santa Cruz Mountains, once again is under a “Red Flag Warning” today and tomorrow and possibly extending into Friday.

A Red Flag Warning is an official National Weather Service bulletin to “alert fire departments of the onset, or possible onset, of critical weather and dry conditions that could lead to rapid or dramatic increases in wildfire activity.” In California, this tends to happen when a gigantic ridge of high pressure positions itself over the north-western Pacific, shunting the Jet Stream northward and thus preventing precipitation, including fog, from reaching the coast. Winds shift from their normal onshore (west-to-east) and instead flow east-to-west. As they pour off the coastal hills (the Diablo Range, the East Bay Hills, the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains), they pick up speed and heat. Humidities plunge to single or low-double digits, and all the elements are in place for the kinds of massive wildfires we’ve seen in recent years.

This is, I don’t know, our sixth or seventh Red Flag Warning of 2020. I don’t know for sure, but I think that’s a record. For sure, California has hit a record in terms of acres burned in 2020: more than 4 million and counting. The previous record was half of that. This year, the number of lives lost and homes destroyed isn’t as high as in, say, 2017. But the damage to wine country has been substantial and will be long-lasting.

It used to be that a weather forecast like today’s—high in Oakland around 90 degrees, humidity about 10 percent, abundant sunshine—was greeted with great gladness. It’s not that warm in the Bay Area during the summer and fall (as visitors know), so we relish the few days when it’s shirtsleeve weather.

But all that changed on Oct. 19-20, 1991. That’s when the Oakland Hills Firestorm hit. I reported extensively on it when I was a local reporter. It started on Saturday, Oct. 19, when a pretty good-sized fire roared up in the hills above the Caldecott Tunnel, which leads from Oakland to the suburban community of Orinda. That fire triggered a rapid response from the Oakland Fire Department, which managed to snuff it out in a few hours; they benefited from the fact that there was very little wind. I remember that fire: the plume of smoke went straight up into the air, instead of horizontally, in a “lighthouse beam” pattern indicative of wind.

Problem was, the fire wasn’t really out. The Fire Department only thought it was. Around 9:30 a.m. the next morning (Oct. 21), it came back to life, amidst the worst possible weather conditions: 91 degrees, humidity about 8 percent, and very strong east winds that approached hurricane force (true!), even at sea level. The fire raged out of control all day, until, miraculously, the wind shifted from offshore to onshore. Fire department officials were grim when they told me, “We didn’t put that fire out. Mother Nature did.” There was no question in their minds that the fire would have taken out downtown Berkeley, raged into downtown Oakland, and southward, through Montclair towards San Leandro. As it was, it killed 25 people (including an OFD Batallion Chief) and destroyed more than 3,000 homes and condos, making it at that point the worst “urban-wildland” fire in American history.

After that, no one looked at hot, dry conditions anymore with undiluted pleasure. Instead, it became “fire weather.” That response has been hugely exacerbated since 2017, what with all the fires. Now, whenever there’s a forecast like today’s, everybody’s first reaction is, “Damn.” It can have psychological impacts. When I woke up this morning—knowing full well what the weather was predicted to be—I smelled the acrid, ashy smell of wildfire smoke. Luckily, it was all in my imagination. But that’s what living through these things does. Spooks your mind.

There’s a memorial to the Oakland firestorm at the Rockridge BART station, in north Oakland. (This short video shows it.) The first time I saw it, I cried, and I still do, to this day. An artists’ collective had invited the public to submit 4” x 4” paintings, which the artists turned into tiles for the wall. Many of the drawings were by children. Many remembered pets. (“Pooky. 1988-1991”). Bill Clinton made one. That fire hit Oakland hard. For me, the experience was even more emotional than the Loma Prieta Earthquake of Oct. 17, 1989, which wrecked downtown Oakland. I think it was because the earthquake was over in a few seconds, but the threat of the fire went terrifyingly on all day, that day of Oct. 20, 1991. Even those of us in the flatlands, miles from the fire’s epicenter, weren’t safe. (I had a “go bag” all ready, including a crate for my cat.) A few days after the fire was over—when thousands of firefighters had gone home, but the burn area was still surrounded by National Guard—Marilyn and I drove up Broadway Terrace to check it out. We lasted for about 5 minutes before, sickened and nauseated, we turned around and went home. That death zone was no place for curious tourists.

Oakland (and Berkeley and the surrounding suburban cities) will burn again. No doubt about it. Trump can rant all he wants about “forest management,” but these wildfires are routine expressions of nature. They can be mitigated but not eliminated. Maybe we shouldn’t have allowed people to build homes on the urban-wildland interface in the first place, but that’s crying over spilled milk. We’re not going to relocate all those people—from southern Oregon down to San Diego—any more than we’re going to relocate people from the hurricane zones of Texas, the Gulf states and the Eastern seaboard, or relocate people from Tornado Alley. Trump should really stop making political hay out of natural disasters, but, of course, he won’t. We’ll have to stop him ourselves, by defeating him in a landslide on Nov. 3.

Meanwhile, that Red Flag Warning is in effect right now. Keep your fingers crossed for us, please.

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