Life along the ridgeline of the East Bay Hills is like life on the edge, where inland and coastal climates come together, where the winds blow the hardest from either side. Conditions there are more extreme than in the sloping canyons and lowlands below. When it’s hot, it’s hotter on the ridge, and when it’s cold, it’s colder. No wonder that native Americans eschewed living so high on the hill. While we don’t have grizzlies and mountain lions to contend with anymore, our East Bay hilltops can still be an inhospitable place to set up camp. Our sturdy houses might allow us to ignore the inclement weather outside, but, when a Diablo wind blows, wildfires may be nipping at our heels.
When my parents built their mid-century retreat in 1953 overlooking the small side canyon called Gwin, it had been just seven years since wildfire in 1946 had cleared this hilltop property. Twenty-four years later, in 1970, wildfire visited our hilltop again. This time, however, the blaze was stopped before it could pass from Gwin Canyon into the mother drainage of Claremont Canyon, and my parents’ home was spared. Twenty-one years later, in what many still think of as the recent unpleasantness of ’91, the eastern front of the Oakland Firestorm came to a halt in almost the exact same spot. It left a fire-ravaged landscape 360 degrees around both my parents’ home and my own home (recently completed in September of ’91). During both fires, a bulldozer traced the nearly identical path from Grizzly Peak Boulevard down to Claremont Avenue.
Those of us who live at the top of Gwin Canyon know the strength of the Diablo winds, which start in September and continue into winter. The only relief from fire danger is a soaking rain. Gusting currents from the east are funneled and focused as they force their way through the topography of the ridge. No wonder that this area is one of the few spots on maps of East Bay fire history to show repeat burns every few decades. All this would lead one to think of patterns. The only sure one is that fires thrive at the breezy higher elevations while the quiet recesses of canyons are the last to burn.
Not every ridge fire turns into a conflagration, however. Many small fires start every year along the ridgelines of Gwin and Claremont Canyons, but, lacking disastrous winds, without much effect.
Overlooks that draw tourists and locals alike prove to be particularly combustible—human love of things that smolder or explode and ashy roadside fuel are never a good combination. In August 1999, a fire started off the “Berkeley Lookout,” a popular pull-out on Grizzly Peak Boulevard just south of Claremont Avenue. More recently, last July, a fire which started right below that lookout proved that fire could still burn easily in a dripping fog through summer-dry vegetation. These events provided good—if unscheduled—practice for firefighters, who quickly extinguished the fires.
Even in the most extreme conditions, fires do not happen without ignition. Most ignition in our area is due to humans’ unwitting contribution of a spark to the tinder. Next to my parents’ house, in October 2000, a wind-shorn euc branch broke a 12 kV powerline but did not ignite the native vegetation below, still quite wet from an early rain.
Of course, fires can and do start at lower elevations. For instance, in 1999 a fire started near the bottom of Claremont Canyon and burned through an acre of thick brush and into a grove of eucs behind homes on Stonewall Road. That fire, likely started from a homeless encampment, was snuffed out in a huge response by firefighters lucky not to have to battle the wind that picked up later that week.
“Early detection, rapid response,” whether it applies to the fight against polio, or invasive weeds, or fire, is the key to our not being victim.
Tamia Marg’s home had just been constructed when the ‘91 fire hit. In the foreground, completely melted to the ground, is the old Airstream she was using as a temporary office. The house, however, withstood the fire. Every seam and joint was tight, the wood siding still slightly moist, allowing no place for an ember to get lodged.