An early wildfire season combined with a statewide drought has the Tri-Valley's fire departments ramping up in big ways for even bigger blazes they say are more likely to happen this year -- and have the potential to be even more destructive than ever.
California experienced six of its largest and most-damaging fires in history during the 2020 fire season, which saw more than 4 million acres burned statewide (double the previous record from 2008) and also broke "numerous records," according to officials for Cal Fire, the state's fire agency.
Having responded to more than 1,300 wildland fire incidents so far this year, Cal Fire said continued dry conditions and temperatures already "well above normal for this time of year" could make the 2021 wildfire season "as catastrophic and devastating as last year."
It's a dire prediction being heeded locally by officials like Ron Marley, emergency preparedness coordinator for the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District with more than 40 years of emergency services experience. Marley told the Weekly that they "don't see much relief in the future years right now; this looks to be a continued trend at the moment."
"Fire season used to be three months, maybe four months statewide," Marley said. "California has a year-round fire season now. Somewhere in California is burning pretty much every month of the year. That absolutely did not happen 20 years ago."
In addition to an almost never-ending fire season, Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department Interim Chief Joe Testa said that when he started 25 years ago, "the dryness of the fuels and the weather didn't really come into alignment such that I feared fires coming into town."
The steep tree-studded hillsides and expansive golden fields that are characteristic of the Tri-Valley now also pose a potential threat to residents. Fire can spread from the wildland area just outside Pleasanton and make its way into the city, fueled by dry vegetation and shrubs on the hillsides.
"Pleasanton Ridge and the Foothill Road area corridor are areas of concern because there's homes up in the hills," Testa said. "The hills gradually spread into the city, and the fire becomes more and more dense as it comes down the hill."
Testa added, "The good news is real fire weather tends to bring offshore wind" that can help drive the fire away from the city, back towards more rural areas.
LPFD also commonly puts out fires along the Arroyo Valle and other waterways. Combined with homeless encampments, those areas "tend to have the most" calls for service, as well as the I-580 corridor, though Testa said the latter "hasn't historically been true." The agency also responds frequently to "big fires in the Altamont Pass due to the amount of dry grass."
No significant vegetation fires have happened yet in LPFD's jurisdiction and have been limited so far to small fires they were able to quickly isolate, but none of the local agencies are taking any chances this year and have amplified their preparation efforts accordingly.
The key factor to getting the SRVFPD through each fire season is having "a well-staffed department, well-trained department," according to Marley.
"Our ability to drop into reserves is pretty high; some departments don't really have an exceptional depth to the fleet," Marley said.
While a fire department can probably bring in extra firefighters, if needed, "there's a limit for many agencies as to how many reserve or secondary engines they have."
"On those really high years, you physically run out of a platform to put them on and that's not true in San Ramon. You'd probably run out of people first. It's a luxury to be in that position," Marley said. On any given day, SRVFPD has around 60 people on shift at the same time, but that number always increases on a Red Flag Day.
With "rare exceptions," Testa said LPFD doesn't change its staffing model, though they did bring a few extra people on for a day or two during the SCU Lightning Complex fire last year. "But for the most part, as we go into peak wildland season ... what we do is increase our response to our vegetation fires," which have a "tendency to grow into larger incidents," he said.
The fire season also places unique demands on city firefighters, according to Marley: "You start to get to this point where people are working not days in a row ... but sometimes close to weeks in a row." While it's not uncommon for hotshot crews to work that way, he said "that's not the norm for city fighters."
The fire district's initial response to a blaze will never adjust down on a Red Flag Day but instead adjust up based on available information.
"If you know that all surrounding fire departments have been sending mutual aid resources to other parts of the state, you'll bump up the initial response," Marley said. "What they do, at least for San Ramon Valley, is they bring on additional engines. Depending how severe the Red Flag's supposed to be, maybe we'll bring on two extra engines that day."
Dispatchers for SRVFPD also have the ability to decide what level of dispatch is needed, and Marley said there's "multiple points within the organization that can increase that level immediately," including the battalion chief on duty, who can order the dispatch level even higher.
"In winter, something that comes in as a grassfire will get a totally different dispatch than a grassfire in June," and the response can also differ during the season for Red Flag Days, he said.
Depending on how severe a Red Flag Warning appears, sometimes a shift that's about to go home that day will be held over, effectively doubling how many engines and firefighters are available. It's costly and "the residents of San Ramon Valley ... end up absorbing that cost," but Marley said "doing the reverse is even costlier, not putting that preparation in place."
Though the surrounding foothills are a prime source for fire kindling, more populated areas are also mitigating the risk of another disaster like the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County in 2018.
In the Tri-Valley area, Testa said both Pleasanton and Livermore have annual weed abatement programs to assist people that own properties with burnable vegetation. LPFD is not doing controlled burns in the immediate area but does some in unincorporated parts of Alameda County, and has done controlled burns in the past as well at Camp Parks in Dublin.
Shari Jackman, spokeswoman for the city of Dublin, said each year "the City Council adopts a resolution declaring that weeds and combustible debris accumulating on streets, sidewalks, and property within Dublin is a public nuisance and hazard."
The Alameda County Fire Department, which provides fire service in Dublin, then notifies the property owners and requires "that the conditions be abated without delay."
"If the abatement is not completed, the city of Dublin will, at the expense of the owner, have the weeds and debris removed," Jackman said.
With about a third of all the Tri-Valley's channels and creeks running through its property, the Zone 7 Water Agency's flood management activities also lower the community's fire risk.
Spokeswoman Alexandra Bradley told the Weekly that crews are regularly removing downed trees, conducting channel inspections, and "mowing from the top of the bank to approximately 8 to 10 feet into the channel to minimize fire ignition hazards."
"This channel mowing methodology is considered an effective fire mitigation strategy for the channels by LPFD," Bradley said.
Bradley added that "the highest potential for ignition on the channel is by trail users. The channel mowing minimizes the amount of fuel that can be ignited and gives firefighters time to respond and extinguish before larger fuels are ignited."
When the grass is shorter, Bradley said the fire will not grow into a larger flame and instead just smolder, "which slows down the spread of fire."
To that end, Zone 7 employs a number of different types of vegetation management, but one method has proven to be very effective -- and hugely popular with staff, for other reasons.
"Goat grazing is also used to the same effect as mowing," Bradley said, and has been recently employed again after a successful pilot program last year.
The goats eat overgrown grass, weeds, bushes and even trees at risk for fire when outside conditions are hot and dry. In addition to getting the job done quickly and saving "intensive personnel hours," the goats have another bonus: "They are pretty spectacular to watch," Bradley said.
Livestock aren't an option for everyone, but there are many ways residents can safeguard their properties.
Property owners in rural or wildland urban interface areas have special considerations like maintaining a defensible space of at least 30 feet between their homes and wilderness, but officials said urban dwellers should consider applying similar tactics.
In particular, Marley said two overlooked aspects of fire safety by urban and rural residents are garbage and recycling containers, and patio furniture, the latter which he called "functionally petroleum that's been turned into foam."
"Almost all of us have our trash toters close to the house; it's convenient," Marley said, but high wind conditions can blow up the lids of the containers, allowing embers and sparks to get inside and start another fire at a much later date.
Though it may sound small, Marley also said "just having a small pile of pine needles on the roof can be the difference between the home surviving and not surviving."
If the flammability of anything comes into question, Marley urges erring on the side of caution: "If you think it will burn, it will burn."
5 key fire safety precautions
Safety experts recommend evaluating your house and property for fire hazards as soon as the rainy season is over. According to the Diablo Firesafe Council, which aims to reduce and prepare for wildfires in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, residents should take these five precautionary measures every fire season:
1. Sweep your walkways, patios and decks regularly to remove leaves, needles and other combustible materials that may gather against your house. Remove vegetative debris (leaves, pine needles, twigs) from your gutters and roof.
2. Remove combustible materials from under your deck. If you have no other storage option, install non-combustible siding around deck perimeter. Be sure to adequately ventilate the area to minimize chance of rot from water. When it is time to replace deck boards or rebuild your porch choose a product that meets the California Building Code as recommended in the State Fire Marshal's Office listing of wildland urban interface (WUI) products.
3. Caulk any openings along the top or bottom of wall siding or around windows where gaps could allow embers to enter your home.
4. Store your deck furniture, children's toys and other combustible items inside if a wildfire threatens. Embers coming in contact with flammable materials is the major reason why homes are destroyed during wildfires.
5. Screen your vents under eves and at the foundation. Cover them with 1/8 mesh metal screens. Finer mesh will require more maintenance to keep free of debris. Remember to keep air flowing freely to manage moisture in attic or under your house. Vents are vulnerable entry points for embers and flames.
Tri-Valley fire officials said there's many great resources online for fire safety tips and advice. These websites cover everything from defensible space to evacuation plans: