Early Friday morning, local firefighters and police officers scaled North Berkeley’s hills, familiarizing themselves with its winding footpaths and narrow roads.
The scenery is peaceful but proves hard to navigate when firefighters have to act quickly in the area during the outbreak of wildfires, which are prone to spark up now more than ever in the fourth year of California’s drought.
Friday morning’s training exercise was one of three simulated emergency responses last week, in which Berkeley Fire Department, Berkeley Police Department, the Berkeley Office of Emergency Services and regional municipality fire departments not only prepared for wildfires but also educated the surrounding community on how to prepare for emergencies.
As police officers flyered houses with information on footpath routes and wildfire safety, responders simulated reacting to a small fire, a likely incident, which can all too quickly become a worst-case scenario. Firefighters responded to a simulated 911 call reporting smoke near the hills, but by the time first responders arrived, multiple houses were already on fire.
The simulation prompted local departments to practice coordinating with one another to suppress the fire and evacuate the residents. Firefighters assessed the basic structural integrity of buildings and simulated rescues of trapped victims.
During one drill, a team of firefighters assessed a steep street, noting how the abundance of low tree branches would force them to leave the fire engine at the bottom of the hill. Instead, they hauled about 400 feet of hose up the driveway.
Evaluating the neighboring row of houses, one firefighter quickly determined one residence made from stucco was the best place to shelter firefighters and potential evacuees. Another two firefighters finished assembling the hose and, after calling for fake water on the radio, scouted nearby footpaths for possible “survivors.”
The narrow streets, topography and neighborhood features — such as low-hanging branches, dry pine needles and closely packed wooden residences — of the North Berkeley hills complicate the coordination and maneuvering of large fire engines and companies of firefighters, and heighten the risk of fires spreading faster and farther.
The wildfires raging across the state and the ongoing drought — both declared states of emergency — prompted the department to increase the scope of its wildfire response drills, according to assistant fire chief Abe Ramon Ramon.
“Historically, it’s been about every 25 to 30 years we see a fire that big,” said BFD Assistant Fire Chief David Brannigan, referring to the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley hills fire, one of the worst wildfires in recent memory, which killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 residences. At its peak, a building was burning every 11 seconds, according to Ramon, who remembers the ’91 fire.
Suppressing a small vegetation fire that broke out near Tilden Park on Aug. 16 was also an event fresh in the minds of many participating firefighters. The Berkeley-Oakland hills fire was flooded with responders from five fire departments after initial reports of the half-acre blaze — all part of a mutual response agreement district.
In July, BFD earned a Class 1 rating from the Insurance Services Office for its quickness and efficacy in suppressing fires. Part of the department’s ranking comes from its intense drills comparable with last week’s, said Jennifer Lazo, an emergency services coordinator with the Berkeley Office of Emergency Services.
These training exercises are supported in part through Measure GG — a nearly $4 million-generating special tax in Berkeley that helps the fire department upgrade equipment and maintain staff levels.
Firefighters said that above all, the exercises, while arduous, are crucial to remind responders of their mission in the community.
“When we’re going down and there’s a fire, what’s our priority — is it really property conservation?” Ramon said to his peers during training. “Saving lives — it’s all about saving lives.”