Berkeley Firefighters Fear ‘Perfect Storm’

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:34:00 AM

California firefighters are exhausting themselves as they battle blazes from one end of the state to the other. Throughout the state, politics and housing policies are combining to create the conditions for the firefighting equivalent of a perfect storm. 

“It’s never been like this,” said Deputy Chief Gil Dong of the Berkeley Fire Department (BFD), which has been sending firefighters and equipment north and south to aid other agencies in the face of the fiery onslaught. 

“We’ve had the driest March and April on record,” he said, “and that, combined with high temperatures and low humidity down into the single digits, have made it really difficult.” 

One Berkeley crew of three, plus a wildland engineer, has been battling the Indians and Basin Complex fires, while a BFD captain heads up to Butte County Friday as the deputy leader of a strike team battling blazes there. 

“There are 20,000 people on the fire lines in California, with people coming from across the United States and some from Canada,” said Deputy Chief Dong. 

For the first time, National Guard troops are receiving crash courses in firefighting, and heading out to the fire lines, joining professionals who are exhausted from tours of duty lasting up to 14 days. 

“That means longer hours for those who stay back home, who have to keep things covered,” Dong said. “Our people are getting tired.” 

In addition to the record drought, Dong said that many trees are dying, felled by Sudden Oak Death and beetles, adding even more fuel to flames. 

“Then we get a single day when lightning strikes cause over 1,000 fires,” he said. 

North California’s fire season usually doesn’t peak in earnest until September and October, when the northeasterly Diablo Winds blow, Dong said, “but then we usually get enough rain between February and April to keep things moist until then.” 

With the state facing drought conditions and EBMUD imposing water rationing, there’s plenty to worry about locally. 

Berkeley firefighters have already fought one blaze that broke out near the site of the origin of the East Bay’s disastrous Oakland Hills fire of 1991 on the Berkeley-Oakland side of the Caldecott Tunnel, and the deputy chief formed part of the command team at another fire that broke out in Crow Canyon Monday and consumed 20 acres of wildland before it was contained. 

Another problem facing firefighters is the expansion of housing developments into areas of high fire danger. A major problem, he said, has been a decline in wildland maintenance.