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Monday, October 10, 2005

What Berkeley Lab Has Done to Prepare for Wildland Fires

Wildland fires that destroy multiple buildings occur at least once each decade in the East Bay Hills. These fires are driven by the off-shore winds that typically occur each autumn. The Laboratory site and upper Strawberry Canyon last burned in 1923, so fuel levels are now extremely high in the wildlands to the south and east of the Laboratory. A fire ignited in upper Strawberry Canyon would be burning at the Laboratory site within 15 to 20 minutes under these conditions.    

The conditions that cause buildings to ignite during such wildland fires have been researched and are well-known. The University of California Fire Lab has shown that these fires consume large volumes of fuel quickly, and that any particular building is at risk of ignition from vegetation burning near its exterior walls for approximately 10 minutes under extreme fire conditions. Using this information and computer modeling, the Laboratory worked with fire chiefs of the California Department of Forestry (CDF) and neighboring communities, and with Lab neighbors and local environmental groups, to develop a vegetation (fuel) management program to reduce wildland fire risks to Laboratory buildings.  

The Lab's program reduces vegetation fuel levels on site such that the intensity of a wildland fire moving onto the site will be naturally reduced to the point that buildings will not be exposed to temperatures or flame heights that could ignite the structures. This program will also allow fire fighting personnel to further suppress the fire so it does not move through the Laboratory to the neighborhoods to the west of the Lab. The vegetation management program is now approximately 80 percent implemented. Still to come -- some tree stands are to be thinned so they will not sustain hot "crown fire" conditions, building perimeter plantings will be managed, and much of the landscape will be converted to native perennial grasses.

A number of weather stations have been installed in the East Bay Hills, and when the dangerous combination of wind, temperature and humidity is identified, a "Red Flag" warning is issued.  Signs are posted alerting people entering the hills to be particularly alert, extra fire department patrols are dispatched by neighboring cities, open fire grilling is prohibited in Tilden Park, and Laboratory activities with high risk of ignition are curtailed under Red Flag conditions. 

Fire captains are aware of the heightened sense of concern with low humidity and winds from the east, and additional precautions are being taken when issuing fire permits, according to Berkeley Lab station captain Gary Piermattei.

What to Do When a Wildfire Ignites

Should a wildland fire ignite near the Laboratory, staff will be informed by the Laboratory's public address system. Then follow these steps:

  1. Listen to the public address system. Information and instructions will be broadcast and repeated over the building manager radio system.
  2. Pay attention to instructions regarding the type of evacuation being requested -- vehicular and/or pedestrian.
  3. Understand how to shelter-in-place, if you are asked to do so.
  4. Follow directions.
Further information is available on the EH&S Division web page, under "Emergency Preparedness."


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