Berkeley far from ready for next big hills fire

CITY AFFAIRS: As California grapples with wildfire month, Berkeley must take steps to implement better fire prevention.

Kelly Baird/Staff

Northern California is burning.

A hundred thousand subject to evacuation, dozens missing and more than 40 dead. The destruction seems overwhelming and senseless. As the state continues to grapple with what is colloquially known as “wildfire month,” Berkeley must take steps to minimize the damage, should similar wildfires ravage its hills.

Berkeley has not been untouched this past week: Under a smoky haze, people donned masks and holed up indoors. Many community members know a friend or family member who was forced to flee. Several UC Berkeley students have seen their homes and towns decimated.

UC Berkeley sophomore Marina Vidaurri, whose house and neighborhood were destroyed by the fire, said her area “just looks like a war zone.”

The North Bay fires are tragic, and they serve as a wake-up call. Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose district includes large swaths of the Berkeley hills, says the dense vegetation makes the hills “ripe for a fire.” Under the right weather conditions, something small might activate the environment, and the consequences will be severe.

The East Bay is no stranger to the devastation of firestorms, yet wildfire prevention in the Berkeley-Oakland area has faced several setbacks in recent years.

Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency pulled funds granted to the campus and Oakland for tree reduction — including the removal of highly flammable eucalyptus trees — after a group of local activists filed a lawsuit against it. With the funding pulled, UC Berkeley Fire Fuel Management Program announced an indefinite delay of its fire hazard reduction program.

In addition, money from an Oakland assessment tax that funds wildfire prevention programs implemented after the destructive 1991 Oakland-Berkeley hills fire is set to run out about the end of this year. In 2013, the tax renewal was irrationally voted down.

Berkeley needs to mitigate these setbacks and establish more prevention programs.

For about two to three years, the public works and transportation commissions have jointly been studying the feasibility of undergrounding electric wires in Berkeley. Aboveground electric wires can pose risks, because they can start fires or block roadways when they’re downed. City Council delayed voting on undergrounding utility wires in 2015. That study needs to be completed and put into action. Fires don’t wait for bureaucracy.

Windy, narrow roads in the Berkeley hills have been barriers to emergency vehicles in the past, leading to deaths caused by delayed response times. Wengraf said that last month, an initial survey was done to gauge residents’ reception to “red striping” more of the streets — a process which would remove parking spaces on particularly tight streets to make more room for fire services and evacuation routes. In general, people seemed open to the idea, Wengraf said.

But when push comes to shove, efforts to red stripe more blocks in the hills will likely be met with immense pushback because residents “feel proprietary about the space in front of their house, even though it’s a public street,” Wengraf said.

Berkeley shouldn’t burn because affluent residents won’t give up their parking or because non-native eucalyptus trees continue to dot our hills.

And given the controversy regarding wine country officials’ decisions not to send out certain alerts, Berkeley should take a hard look at its emergency alert policy and make sure it’s up to par.

California mourns for the communities of North Bay. To give the proper respect demanded of the immensity of this tragedy, it is up to Berkeley to do everything in its power to ensure a similar disaster doesn’t occur in its hills.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.