Berkeley, CA

This creative Bay Area neighborhood is taking wildfires into its own hands, and its working!

Jano le Roux

People in the East Bay hills have dealt with wildfires for many years.

Over 600 homes were destroyed in the Berkeley Fire of 1923 that occurred in Wildcat Canyon. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed in a blaze that raged over parts of Berkeley and the Oakland hills in 1991, killing 25 people.

Fears that the same or worse calamities will recur as a result of this year’s fire season abound. Over the years, highly combustible vegetation has accumulated in the East Bay hills, including eucalyptus trees and Monterey pine groves. It is so understandable why the area is thought to be a high risk for wildfires due to its combination of numerous wood-shingled dwellings, light wet seasons, droughts, and oncoming Diablo winds.

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Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

A small unincorporated hamlet north of Berkeley, called Kensington, has found a way to lessen the risk of a devastating wildfire by working together. In addition, they spend hours sitting at their laptops watching for any signs of smoke or flames on remote fire cameras.

He noted that as of the present, Bay Area residents had already witnessed multiple red flag warnings and wildland fires, motivating the group to be more prepared.

About a decade ago, Mr. Cooper and his worried neighbors organized a nonprofit group to advocate for removing vegetation that feeds wildfires in the East Bay Regional Park District. They found, however, that the project would be lengthy due to constrained finances, limited personnel, and opposition from environmental activists who prefer to preserve plant life.

Once they found out about the ALERTWildfire camera program, a network of over 800 cameras in six states managed by three colleges, they realized the danger of a potential wildfire. More than 700 firefighting cameras assist agencies and the public with fire detection, location, and monitoring in California. A picture is published to a publicly accessible website every ten seconds, so anyone can keep an eye on the cameras, raise the alarm when they see smoke or fire, and take the appropriate measures before an evacuation.

The originator of ALERTWildfire, Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno, was requested to inspect prospective locations by the U.S. Geological Survey’s John Cooper. While they first considered installing a camera on the Cooper house, they decided on Vollmer Peak for greater views.

Lafayette Police Department disaster preparedness coordinator John Cornell and Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Chief Lewis Broschard were instrumental in the installation of the first camera in Contra Costa County last year. As a result, three more cameras have been added to the neighborhood.

The organization organized a training session and set up a website that includes protocols, resources, timetables, and a blog where visitors may subscribe to be notified of events. Cooper explained that after looking for similar groups in the Bay Area, they couldn’t find anything, so they had to come up with a new structure. Although the Orange County Fire Department operates a fire watch program, it does it by enlisting and training volunteers through its parks department.

The training session was conducted and a website was set up that contains materials, schedules, and notification methods. During the hunt for similar groups in the Bay Area, they found nothing, so they had to develop a system. People interested in serving in the Orange County Fire Watch Program participate in workshops and training offered by the parks department.

During the 40-hour watch, the Kensington Fire Group held two fire watch events: one for a full day, and one for a shortened day. Volunteers agreed to spend one to two one-hour shifts in a certain time period. They kept an eye on the area cameras and wind forecasts to make sure everything was ok while they were on duty.

Although there were no issues, Cooper said the shifts were “mostly boring,” with some objects, such as car lights, only infrequently attracting their attention. This was excellent because if they had noticed something wrong, it could have created a crisis. His final answer to that question was that the procedure was instructive and empowering.

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