Red flag warning in East, North Bay hills prompts extra fire crew coverage

For the second time this week, a red flag fire warning has been posted for the Bay Area's North and East Bay hills.

The National Weather Service is concerned about low humidity and gusting winds up at high elevations. The warning takes effect Saturday at 1 a.m. and expires Sunday at 6 a.m., unless extended.  

For the public that means avoiding any activity that could spark a fire. For fire crews, it means extra hours on the job. "Hopefully nothing happens, but we would rather err on the side of caution and have extra resources," Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal told KTVU. 

Related: Rosemary Orozco's weather report, including fire danger warnings, extended forecast

Friday evening, a dozen fire agencies across Sonoma County were joining forces to create both a strike team and a task force, to provide extra weekend coverage. The strike team is made up of five wildland engines, a water tender and a Battalion Chief. 

The task force is also headed by a Battalion Chief, plus four mixed-use engines and three water tenders. Together, they aim to provide additional depth to existing coverage, should fires break out during red flag conditions. 

Once assembled, they will position themselves near the high-risk areas. "The areas of strong winds and lower humidity we've moved resources up into those areas and they've actively patrolled and been available closer to where the threat is," explained Lowenthal. 

High in Mark West Springs, west of Santa Rosa, the Avalos family lives inside that threat zone. "We had a table right here, that table caught on fire," said Sylvia Avalos, giving KTVU a look at her house, which has a panoramic view of Mt. St Helena and adjacent ridgetops.

Some of the vista is blackened by the Tubbs Fire and some is unburned, not unlike her five acre property. The family lost a barn, cabana, and fences, but their house survived with heavy damage. 

"There was actually embers inside the house when we returned," said Avalos, pointing to the kitchen's hardwood floor where embers blew in. "They didn't catch fire, and that's why we say it was definitely a miracle that the house is here."   

A year after the Tubbs Fire, which devoured entire neighborhoods, the Avalos home is under repair, with walls stripped to the studs because smoke-tainted insulation had to be removed. Avalos admits she didn't think much about "red flag" before

"Because we never had heard about it, it wasn't as obvious as now," she said. But after escaping just ahead of the flames, the term has real meaning. "It's scary, now it's scary," she said. “And now we know the precautions we need to take, so something like that won't happen again." 

Six of her neighbors lost homes that night in October 2017. And with wildfires this season taking property and lives, from Santa Barbara County to Shasta County, agencies everywhere have become more pro-active.          

"Each one of these red flag warnings puts our communities at risk," said Lowenthal, noting that every warning also presents an opportunity to make the public more aware and more prepared for fire emergency. 

With November weather warm and dry so far, the current state of readiness shows no sign of easing. 

"Until we get those significant rains and we get the conditions that really end fire season, we have the potential to continue to go into more red flag warnings, with high-risk conditions and extra staffing" said Lowenthal.