Because long-range forecasts predict dry weather, East Bay Regional Park District’s fire department is gearing up for a potentially dangerous fire season.
Fire Chief Aileen Theile cited two factors in particular. Weather forecasters are predicting more frequent, dry offshore breezes. And although this was a relatively dry winter, some late spring rains stimulated more growth by already tall grasses.
Firefighters used to think in terms of a “fire season.” However, with climate change, the fire season is now virtually year round.
To combat fires, Chief Theile leads 16 full-time firefighters and some 34 on-call staff -- district employees with other primary occupations, but who are also fully trained firefighters available when needed.
A new and important component of the fire department is an eight-member fuel reduction crew. This crew works throughout the year to enhance fire safety by clearing brush away from trails, trimming trees to remove ladder fuels, and piling the resulting vegetation for disposal by burning “strategically and where appropriate,” as Chief Theile said. They fight wildfires too, when needed.
The fuel reduction crew also works on the district’s fuel break in the East Bay hills. This is a zone of thinned vegetation between regional parklands and adjacent residential neighborhoods that extends from Richmond south to Castro Valley.
It serves two purposes: slowing the spread of fire between open space and adjacent neighborhoods, and providing firefighters with a place to make a stand.
Fire headquarters are at Station 1 in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley. Seven other stations throughout the district are staffed as circumstances demand. All have engines and other equipment in place.
A dispatch center operates 24 hours per day in support of the district’s firefighters and police. During a fire, the district’s two police helicopters serve as observation platforms to determine fire location and speed, and best access for ground crews. The helicopters are equipped with Bambi buckets to fight fire from above with 250-gallon water drops.
Besides its own personnel and equipment, the park district has mutual aid agreements with CAL FIRE, the California Office of Emergency Services, and every fire department within Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. This enables rapid response to emergencies both within and outside the parklands.
Of course the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news in recent times. In that regard, Chief Theile noted that it was easier for the firefighters to observe the new protocols, because they are accustomed to wearing protective gear anyway.
Their additional safety measures include assigning separate crews to each engine, allowing only assigned personnel in the stations, and designating one firefighter to approach and assess a victim in an emergency situation, before committing the entire crew. Post-incident decontamination is accomplished as appropriate.
There are major ways in which the public can help the district reduce fire hazards. It should be noted that no smoking, including vaping, is permitted in the regional parks. And during any emergency, park visitors need to cooperate with all instructions from firefighters, police or park rangers.
If you see a fire while in a park, call 911, report the fire’s location, size and direction of burn if possible, then leave immediately.
Beyond that, Theile said, “We ask people to take a hard look at fire safety in their own backyards.”
“It’s not just one neighbor doing it, but the entire neighborhood,” she added.
“Thirty feet of lean, clean and green” is the motto. This means reducing the fuel load by mowing. Beyond 30 feet there should also be thinner vegetation. Information on defensible space is available at the CAL FIRE website, fire.ca.gov.
It’s also important to have an evacuation plan in case of an approaching fire. “Don’t wait to be told,” Theile said, “and don’t block the road so that fire engines can’t get in.”
To sum it up, “Be informed and be prepared,” she said.
Editor's Note: Ned MacKay writes his "Park It" column for the East Bay Regional Park District and its publications.