University of California at Berkeley

Keeping Hills Fire Danger Down

A CD Helps Pinpoint What Safety Improvements Would Help Hill Neighborhoods

 Thanks to research by John Radke and a team of graduate students, residents of the East Bay hills can now type their home addresses into a database and get an instant look at the fire risk of their neighborhoods.

Even better, "you can see what conditions, if changed, can improve the safety of your neighborhood," said Radke, an assistant professor of landscape architecture.

The information is contained on a CD titled "East Bay Hills Fire Hazard," and was demonstrated Monday, Oct. 21, to the fall meeting of the Hills Emergency Forum held on campus. The campus is one of six East Bay agencies that comprise the forum, a cooperative effort of vegetation management and fire suppression.

"As we witnessed in the devastating East Bay Hills Firestorm in 1991, fire does not recognize or respect property or political boundaries," said Vice Chancellor Horace Mitchell, who completed his year as forum chair.

The coalition's annual report outlines actions taken by the agencies -- the campus, the cities of Berkeley and Oakland, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, East Bay Municipal Utility District and the East Bay Regional Park District -- in reducing and responding to fire hazard in the hills.

Among positive changes since the devastating fire five years ago are the development of a fuel management plan and fire modeling tools, said Antonio Acosta, chair of the forum's staff liaison committee and Oakland's assistant director of parks.

Acosta commended Radke and his graduate students in the Applied Environmental Geographic Information Systems Laboratory for doing Fire

"an outstanding job" of putting together a detailed database of hill area vegetation, topography and structures called a Graphic Information System.

Using this information makes it possible to use computer simulation software to model potential fire behavior under real-world conditions, said Acosta.

"We started by building a baseline set of data to determine what conditions could cause a firestorm and mapped the" so one could see how the conditions could be mitigated to avoid such a fire, said Radke.

He praised the hard work of his graduate students, who went into the hills with global positioning instruments and reported such detailed information as the specific kinds of plants in an area, their water content, wind flow patterns and the kinds of structures present.

"A Channel 2 news crew came out with us last week to do a day in the life of our lab. I think they were pretty impressed," said Radke.

In addition to Radke's work, the campus is active in other ways. It annually works to reduce fire risk though its vegetation management programs.

The most positive note is that there were no wild land fires on campus property in 1996. By employing goats, hand crews and volunteers, the campus reduced the fuel -- and fire potential -- on nearly 60 acres of brush and vegetation in the hill area. It also met its goal to maintain eight miles of "defensible" space, including roadside and fire trail maintenance.

The new chair of the campus's Fire Prevention Committee is adjunct professor Carroll Williams of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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