High winds and red flag conditions roared into East County in the early hours of Sunday, Oct. 27, sparking four significant fires in the region and prompting the evacuation of parts of Bethel Island, Oakley, Knightsen and Morgan Territory.
A press release issued by the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) Wednesday afternoon placed the blame for two of the fires – the Bethel Island and Oakley incidents – on PG&E. The press release said video evidence and eyewitness statements indicated that malfunctioning transformers were casting sparks into the tinder-dry vegetation below at the location of both of these fires. As of press time, PG&E did not respond to a request for comment regarding the origin of the East County fires.
Peak wind gusts were estimated at 75 mph, while sustained winds exceeded 30 mph, said ECCFPD) Fire Chief Brian Helmick. Despite the challenging weather and the number of incidents that occurred over a relatively short time frame, only one minor injury was reported, and minimal property damage occurred. Helmick credited an emergency staff increase and the tactics implemented by fire crews — from multiple agencies that responded to the area — with protecting the lives and property of area residents. The district’s extra staffing was expected to remain on duty until Wednesday, Oct. 30, due to a second high-wind incident expected to blow through the area.
“Utilizing emergency recall and having our members respond back to the jurisdiction, we were able to upstaff an additional three engines to be able to respond to incidents over the 24-hour wind event,” said Helmick. “The response back from our members is something that I don’t take for granted. I think it shows the level of commitment and professionalism of the members we have in the organization. Secondarily, the strategies, tactics, methods and communications that our members used were textbook. The decisions that they made throughout a 12-hour period created a situation where we had no life loss and no property loss.”
The first fire to ignite was a 2-acre blaze on Bethel Island that threatened both the Santiago Mobile Home Park and the Delta Coves development currently under construction.
“We got the initial call about 3 a.m. for a vegetation fire out on Gateway Road on Bethel Island,” said ECCFPD Fire Marshal Steve Aubert. “Upon arriving, we did have very heavy winds that were pushing that fire toward the new community of Delta Coves. We had a quick attack from the strike team that was put together for the county, and all three units of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District. We are happy to say that we knocked that one down without losing any type of structures or anyone being injured.”
Mark Whitlock of Bethel Island estimated that 150-200 residents of the mobile home park were evacuated by deputies from the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff. While Bethel Island did not have power, Scout Hall was opened as an evacuation center, and about 15 people took shelter there. Whitlock used the headlights from his car to illuminate the darkened hall until sunrise. A gas station on Gateway Road suffered some exterior fire damage.
At 5 a.m., a 20-acre fire near the intersection of East Cypress and Bethel Island roads resulted in the complete evacuation of the Summer Lakes neighborhood, as winds drove embers from the fire toward the residential area. Evacuees were directed to the Oakley Rec Center on O’Hara Road. All of the units that responded to this incident — with the exception of the battalion chief, who served as the incident commander — were from outside the district.
Oakley Police Chief Eric Christensen explained that evacuation notices were issued over the county’s community warning system (CWS) and the Nixle warning system. Then, officers made loudspeaker announcements while driving through the neighborhood before officers began going door to door. Despite these efforts, Christensen said he received reports of residents who did not hear or receive the evacuation order.
“If one or two people didn’t get the message, the system didn’t work the way that we needed the system to work,” said Christensen. “We need to make sure that everybody gets the message. We’ll be going out and handing out flyers to encourage people to register with the CWS system and with Nixle ... If we can get people to log on to Nixle, if we can get people to update their information with the community warning system, we’re way ahead of the pack.”
Within minutes of the Oakley fire, another 20-acre blaze ignited in nearby Knightsen, prompting an evacuation of residents along Knightsen Avenue. Crews from the Bethel Island fire were redeployed to Knightsen to fight what was East County’s most damaging fire of the day. According to an ECCFPD incident report, the fire destroyed several outbuildings and plumbing supplies stored in the area. A horse, goats and chickens were killed in the incident. One ECCFPD firefighter suffered a minor eye injury. The district’s investigation determined that this fire was not related to PG&E equipment.
“That fire got into some large combustible areas,” said Aubert. “It had some pretty high flame length — anywhere from 40 to 50 feet up in the air.”
The largest fire — a 40-acre blaze off Leon Road in Morgan Territory — forced another evacuation. The evacuation order was issued just before 8 a.m., and was not lifted until 5 p.m. Ground crews were assisted by Cal Fire aircraft while getting that fire under control. There were no injuries and no loss of property reported. Cal fire is investigating the cause.
Contra Costa County District 3 Supervisor Diane Burgis traveled throughout East County to survey the damage.
“It was really inspiring to see how prepared they were,” said Burgis. “Each one of those (incidents) could have been catastrophic, but they had the resources ready. All of these years of training worked. All of the (resources) worked together perfectly.”