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Wildfires and Heat: How two Bay Area Cities are keeping their residents safe from climate hazards

In the past months, wildfires have been burning across the West, producing smoke, ash, and unhealthy air that is affecting us locally in California and even crossing state borders. Megafires, which used to be rare, are now more common and have serious consequences, as demonstrated by the Oregon Bootleg Fire that has been burning for over a month and scorching over 400,000 acres of land (Source). Smoke from the Bootleg Fire, California’s Dixie Fire - the second largest in California history - and the hundreds of other smaller fires currently burning in the West have triggered air quality advisories as far away as Boston (Source). In addition to these fires, California has been experienced record-breaking heat waves for the past couple of years.

Just about anywhere you live in the state you are likely to face a fire threat (Source). In fact, a quarter of California’s population, or about 10 million people, is estimated to live within areas designated as high fire risk zones (Source). The impacts of climate change are disproportionately felt by lower income communities. In extreme heat events, for example, wealthier neighborhoods stay cooler due to the cooling effects of tree lined streets and parks that are not typically found in lower income neighborhoods that characteristically have a larger amount of heat-trapping asphalt and concrete surfaces. (Source, Source). In Oakland, for instance, Rockridge and Fruitvale are barely 6 miles apart, but they can have up to a ten degree temperature difference (Source). Extreme heat significantly increases the potential for heat related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and stroke. (Source). There are steps you can take to combat uncomfortably hot homes while at the same time lowering utility bills. Mickey Souza, a home assessor that provides Home Energy Scores for BayREN, reports that more Bay Area homeowners are installing air conditioning (AC). While this provides relief and comfort, AC also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and higher bills. There are, however, other home improvements, such as good insulation and windows that cool homes without contributing to an increase in GHG emissions.

Local jurisdictions are actively addressing how best to combat these climate threats. Last fall, the Town of Windsor, for example, began an 18-month process to develop a climate adaption and resilience plan, called the Windsor Resilience Plan. The Plan, which also includes a vulnerability assessment, seeks to better understand local climate-related vulnerabilities such as drought, wildfire, and extreme precipitation while also determining ways to invest in the community’s health, safety, and prosperity. Carl Euphrat, a Windsor staff member and the Project Manager leading the effort, remarked that “The Town is on the front lines of dealing with the impacts of the climate crisis. With extreme weather events increasingly threatening our community, we need to act fast and incorporate local community knowledge and expertise to ensure that the Plan fits our collective vision for a better future.” The Town has led an engagement process that identifies the community’s priorities and examines feasible strategies for achieving them. To address fire concerns, the community voiced a need for coordinated evacuation and emergency response. Windsor is now looking into ways to improve their NIXLE alerts, an emergency message system. Another critical aspect of the plan is the need for vegetation management of trees and green spaces. According to Cal Fire, vegetation management can aid in wildland fire containment and control while creating safety zones for firefighters and other first responders (Source). Vegetation management can mean fuel treatments to modify or reduce hazardous fuels. For Windsor, this means developing a way to manage their trees without bulldozing them. Carl mentions, “The trees we have in Town, especially in important public spaces such as the Town Green, also keep us safe from other climate hazards, such as extreme heat, something our neighbors know about all too well.” The Windsor Resilience Plan will be released in 2022, just a couple of years after the Kincaid Fire ravaged the town.

In some jurisdictions, community organizations are helping to lead the efforts that deal with climate hazards. The Oakland Firesafe Council is a grassroots community-based organization dedicated to mobilizing Alameda County residents to reduce the risks of wildfire danger to people and property through outreach, programs, and projects. The Council took part in creating the Oakland Community Preparedness & Response (CP&R) program to provide residents’ resources and and support to help increase the community preparedness level and improve disaster response capabilities. To get the word out about fire safety, the Council hosts regular “Savvy Homeowner” webinars that provide local fire news and tips. Attendees learn about the importance of home hardening - to increase home resistance to heat, flames, and embers, home insurance, emergency evacuation, and more. Currently, the team is working closely with researchers from the University of California to create a simulation resource for local Alameda County residents to better understand a general evacuation scenario. Sue Piper, a co-founder of the council encourages everyone in Alameda County to learn more about fire safety, especially before fire season. “You don’t have to live in a wildfire community to have a fire started in your home.”

Interested in learning more? Look below for a list of helpful resources for local governments and homeowners.

Homeowner Resources

Improving comfort during heat

Preparing and protecting your home during wildfire season

Local Government Resources