The tragic early August wildfires on west Maui, in particular the blaze that consumed much of Lahaina, should be a stark reminder to Oakland and the East Bay that a similar scenario could occur here. Maui has been in a drought, with an over-abundance of dry, flammable vegetation and low humidity conditions. Strong winds from passing hurricane Dora, even though hundreds of miles away, fanned the flames to the intensity that they couldn’t be stopped. After tearing through Lahaina the firestorm finally subsided only when it hit the ocean and ran out of fuel (which included docked boats.)
Our hearts go out to all those affected by wildfires on Maui and the other islands of Hawai’i.
Low Humidity, Fanning Winds
The Lahaina wildfire should sound disturbingly familiar to anyone who witnessed in-person or who has seen the videos or read the accounts of the 1991 Oakland Firestorm. That catastrophic event occurred in similar conditions with dry vegetation, seasonal low humidity and strong east-to-west Diablo winds. According to firefighters who fought the 1991 blaze, it too could have burned through Oakland until it hit the Bay. Thankfully a shift and decrease in wind and some moisture in the air, plus heroic firefighting from OFD and other agencies, prevented that from happening.
Abundance of Fuel to Feed a Fire
Keep in mind that while much of Maui is covered in vegetation–most communities are in or next to a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) area (as are communities in the Oakland hills/foothills)–the city of Lahaina is mostly an urban zone. But there is plenty of fuel in urban buildings and other structures that a firestorm will readily consume. Residents throughout Oakland, even in suburban/urban areas, need to be aware of this and to be prepared for wildfire.
Concerns About Warning Systems and Evacuation
Other disturbing similarities between Oakland and Lahaina are the lack of robust warning systems plus lack of evacuation plans that are understood and practiced by residents. Maui has sirens, primarily to warn of tsunami, that weren’t activated (that decision will be debated for some time.) If activated, all they could do is wail, providing no further instructions. Oakland has 27 sirens around the City that are of WWII era design. All they can do is wail too, and most residents don’t know the meaning of the 3 possible wailing tones.
To address this deficiency, cities such as Berkeley are installing modern emergency siren/speaker systems (Long Range Acoustical Devices) that can warn with very loud, verbal instructions (“Wildfire approaching–evacuate now!”). Oakland needs to implement these as well.
It’s not apparent that residents of Maui practiced wildfire evacuations, or even had a good idea of how best to escape a rapidly approaching wildfire. This is Oakland’s situation too. We need to have evacuation simulations and drills to practice escaping from a wildfire (and tsunami), and to uncover evacuation issues that can then be addressed before a disaster strikes. And we need to understand evacuation plans that our City has in place (or not), so we are better informed to make the best evacuation decisions.
No one of course wants a repeat of Maui’s wildfire tragedy, but unless we take critical steps – including more of our residents trained and better prepared for disaster, better warning systems in place and knowing how and when to evacuate and practicing evacuations – we run the risk of a similar wildfire disaster happening here in Oakland.
~ Doug Mosher
OFSC Board Member and Preparedness Program Manager