‘We are very concerned’: 2021 fire season could set records, and Bay Area is at risk

The skies above the Mormon Temple in Oakland, Calif. are turned an eerie shade of orange by smoke from nearby wildfires, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo by D. Ross Cameron)

With hotter temperatures and drier seasons, Bay Area wildfires are becoming more intense — and this upcoming fire season will likely be no different.

Jonathan Cox, deputy chief of Cal Fire’s San Mateo County division, said that in the past decade, each year’s wildfire season has grown in intensity.

“Without a doubt the worst wildfires on record were in 2020, and that came on the heels of the worst wildfires on record in 2019 and before that 2018,” Cox said during a live chat Thursday with the staff of Local News Matters.

So, 2021 will likely follow in suit.

There is a chance the 2021 fire season may not break records, but Cox said it is unlikely. It could happen, however, if the summer was to be relatively cool with little wind.

“But if we do get anomalous weather events or a high number of wind or lightning events like last year, then I think we can expect to have an increase in the number and size and scope of the fires,” Cox said.

He said in the Bay Area specifically, wind has been a major factor in the spread of wildfires, especially in the last five years.

So that means the region is most vulnerable to the flames in September, October and even late November, when the Bay Area has higher wind levels.

Jonathan Cox is deputy chief of Cal Fire’s San Mateo County division. (Photo courtesy of Cal Fire)

Cox pointed to the October 2017 Tubbs Fire that burned 36,807 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties and the Camp Fire, which was the most destructive in state history, claiming 85 lives and burning 153,336 acres in Butte County in November 2018, as examples of wind accelerating the blazes.

In the Bay Area, fire season typically lasts from late June to October, but with the impacts of climate change, fires are occurring throughout the year.

Already, the state has seen 900 more wildfires than it did at this point in 2020, which broke wildfire season records when it scorched more than 4 percent of the state’s land.

And for the Bay Area, it seems like wildfire season kicked off in the beginning of May, Cox said.

“We’re going to our peak staffing level for our seasonal staff on June 1, which is basically a month ahead of where we would normally be for staffing,” Cox said.

He also said Cal Fire has hired more seasonal firefighters this year than ever before — at least 1,400 additional firefighters.

“I think we’re all anticipating another busy fire season,” Cox said. “The fact of the matter is the vegetation is very dry so that’s less of a threat for the grasses, but for our heavier fuels like our heavier brush and our timber — we are very concerned.”

So, for those living on hillsides with low grasslands, the fire risks are not as serious as for those living in densely populated communities near forests, or hillsides of bush and timber.

In the East Bay, areas of higher concerns are near Moraga, Orinda, Lafayette, Oakland, Richmond and Berkeley. There are also areas near Danville and Pleasanton that have very high wildfire risks.

“We’re always concerned about the whole (state Highway) 24 corridor,” Cox said. “You know, all of those Western facing slopes and in that interface.”

OAKLAND, CA – SEPTEMBER 24: A high fire danger sign is seen along Skyline Boulevard in the hills of Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. A red flag alert is in effect until Wednesday, with high temperatures and winds forecast. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Marin County also has a lot of communities at risk, especially around the Mt. Tamalpais area like Mill Valley and San Rafael, Cox said.

In the Peninsula, the areas of concern are always “all those interfacing communities,” from Burlingame, Belmont and Woodside over to El Granada, Cox said.

And in the South Bay, most threatened are Los Gatos, the upper Palo Alto area and Saratoga. Parts of Morgan Hill and Santa Clara County’s east foothills near Alum Rock also have a high-severity risk for wildfires.

“Basically, if you look at the rim of the Bay Area, any community that’s in and around that rim of the Bay Area’s mountain range in some degree has some elevated risk for wildfire,” the deputy chief said.

He said that Cal Fire and other fire departments are doing all that they can do prepare for the wildfire season again, including some but not many prescribed burns.

But for the most part, Cal Fire is the agency that comes in after disaster strikes.

Cox said it is up to residents to make sure their home and family are as defensible as they can be in the threat of fires this summer.

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