Fire has played a significant role on multiple occasions in the Easy bay. In 1923 a wildfire raged through north Berkeley that originated from a hiker’s cigarette butt in Wildcat Canyon. The fire burned all the way down to Shattuck destroying almost anything in its way. The response was quite slow to extinguish the fire at this time in history with only a handful of engines responding between 3-5 hours after the fire commenced. The fire burned 640 structures and most of these were houses (Wikipedia). Firefighting efforts arrived by ferry from San Francisco and at the same time UC Berkeley students were helping fight the fire on the north side of UC Berkeley’s campus (Wikipedia). This fire was just a taste of what would come years later. The landscape of the area would be chaparral grasslands but now hundreds of thousands of highly flammable Eucalyptus trees now occupy the area. After this fire structures in Berkeley were built with fire resistant technology like stucco siding and more firefighting stations were built. Water supply was a detrimental factor in the efforts to fight this fire effectively as well.
In 1991 a wildfire that became known as “the Firestorm” ravaged thousands of structures in the East Bay Hills known as the Claremont hills. This 1600 acre fire claimed 25 lives, 2900 homes and caused damages in excess of one billion dollars (EBRPD). Until recently it was marked as the deadliest fire in U.S. history. Strong winds ignited embers from a recent put out fire and led to this massive catastrophe. “At its height, 1,500 firefighters and 450 engines from all over Northern California were fighting the fire. By the time it burned out, it had consumed 2.5 square miles of mostly residential neighborhoods. Twenty-five people were killed and 150 injured. The fire destroyed 3,469 homes and apartment units and 2,000 automobiles” (EBRPD).
These were not the only fires in the East Bay but they still are known to be the two largest and most destructive. The last five years have delivered the highest frequency of devastating wildfires of monumental magnitude in California. Over the last 100 years communities have developed even further into the wilderness. These areas have become known as WUI’s or wildland urban interfaces. Living in these areas creates a greater risk for becoming susceptible to wildfires unforgiving impact on anything in its path. Exacerbating the risk poised to East Bay area’s residents are groves of oily Eucalyptus trees number around 500,000. These trees pose the greatest threat to communities built around them and intense feuds have resulted on the suggestion that all trees should be eradicated to eliminate the main risk associated with wildfire. There is still no exact resolution as many agencies come up against residents who say they are happy to live in the WUI and accept the risk related to living in these beautiful areas. These areas tend to be more affluent and not everyone living in the hills feel the same about managing the surrounding forests. One thing for sure is that fire fighters face large risks when trying to fight fires in the east bay hills. We will talk more about these trees and what makes them so flammable in the section on the landscape.