California Advises Evacuating Wildfire Hotspot at First Sign of Danger
(Bloomberg) -- To prepare for potential wildfire, California officials have long advised residents to trim foliage, plan escape routes, and pack go-bags. Now one city is asking some citizens to do something extraordinary on days when the risk is high: Leave before a fire even starts.
Berkeley said this week it will recommend that people living in its wooded hillside relocate during “extreme fire weather,” rare periods of very dry conditions and high winds. City officials want to prevent the loss of life if a fast-moving wildfire does develop in its hills, with about 10,000 homes and narrow and windy roads that can make it difficult for people to leave quickly. Last year, there were two days that had qualifying weather conditions.
Evacuation warnings for wildfires are typically issued when there is an imminent threat of danger. A spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said they were unaware of another municipality issuing this kind of recommendation.
“We are in a new normal right now,” Berkeley Fire Department Special Operations Assistant Chief Keith May said in an interview. “We are telling people that during extreme winds, if a fire starts, you may not be able to get out in time.”
The unusual move comes as several major wildfires are already charring parts of California, forcing nearly 16,000 people to evacuate as of Thursday. The largest of them— the Dixie Fire— destroyed much of a northern Sierra Nevada town of Greenville on Wednesday evening. California officials have been bracing for an intense wildfire season as severe drought has parched grassy hillsides and forested mountains, turning much of the state into a tinderbox.
Some of the deadliest fires in state history—including the 1991 Oakland and Berkeley hills blaze that killed 25 and the 2018 Camp Fire that resulted in 85 deaths—occurred during extreme fire weather, Berkeley officials said. Climate change is leading to shorter rainy periods and longer fire seasons, raising the risk for catastrophic fires, according to a city presentation.
Last fall, Berkeley asked hillside residents to leave for the first time when conditions hit the city’s fire danger threshold, May said. This year, local hotels are offering “fire weather” discount rates through November for those who are forced from their homes. In nearby Oakland, city officials are taking a slightly different approach: They are zeroing in on those who may need additional time to evacuate, recommending they leave when fire risk is high.
“Our biggest challenge is there are limited routes in and out of the hills,” said Nick Luby, deputy chief of operations for the Oakland Fire Department.
Warning residents about a fast-moving fire when it’s close by can be chaotic and inadequate, said Sarah DeYoung, an assistant professor at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Other cities are likely to follow Berkeley's lead as extreme fires become more frequent, she said.
“Most people I’ve talked to who have evacuated from past fires, they have had the opposite problem, where there would be a fire consuming the neighborhood and no warning issued,” DeYoung said.
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