Fire Chief Black readies for a “red flag” week

Red flag conditions. Warnings of power shut-offs by PG&E. Advice for households to have a “go kit” ready if evacuation is needed.

These are now the sobering reality during California fire season, as the Bay Area is experiencing this week.

When the region experienced similar conditions at the end of September, “It was very tense here in the Bay Area in general,” said Piedmont Fire Chief Bret Black. “Ourselves and other departments upstaffed during the red flag warning. We have a brush engine on duty and we collaborate with the county on high hazard days.”

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Black understands that many longtime residents who remember the Oakland hills fire of 1991 consider October to be the peak of fire season, adding, “I hate saying that because it creates bad fire karma. But if you look back historically at this time of year a lot has happened. All it takes is the wrong conditions, on the wrong day at the wrong time. We want everybody to continue to be diligent.”

Black has his own characterization for the current season. “I’ve heard this time of year referred to metaphorically as fire season witching hour,” he said. “It’s easy to become complacent and forget. People need to be mindful of the potential danger.”

Fires that have flared up around the state are being attacked with more resources than in the past to try and keep them from quickly getting out of control. “Cal Fire (he California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) has more resources staffed at this time of year than at any point in the last few years,” Black said, cautioning that the availability of state personnel could change at a moment’s notice.

“When Southern California and Northern have events at the same time the resources available go way down,” he said. “We’re starting to see red flag days. I noticed that the Santa Ana winds have started in Southern California. We’re usually a couple of weeks behind. We’re ready to engage if we get the wrong weather event.”

As for hazard conditions in town, “Right now it’s at an elevated level but not critical or extreme,” Black said.

Residents shouldn’t be deceived by changes in the weather, he warned.

“It may feel like fall is coming with cooler mornings and fog, but that’s when some of the biggest fires have started,” he said. “I remember it was 58 degrees on Nov. 8 where the Camp Fire started.”

The Camp Fire burned for two weeks last year and killed 85 people while destroying the Northern California town of Paradise.

The Piedmont department has worked all year on reducing the number of potential properties to minimize the chances of fire threatening homes or growing in size.

“We’ve seen a lot of enforcement progress on abating hazards,” Black said. “I’m still the new guy in town, but I’m told we’ve seen more response in the last six months from the com

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