Berkeley pursues fire safety measures, drills in aftermath of 2018 wildfires

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After hundreds of thousands of acres of land in California were burned in more than 6,000 fires in 2018, governments and organizations across the state are looking to devise new ways to track and prevent wildfires.

California was ravaged over the past two years by six of the 10 worst fires recorded in the state’s history. Since then, Berkeley — which uses the AC Alert system, Nixle and the Community Emergency Response Team program as methods for alerting the public about wildfire — has expanded systems for fire prevention, preparedness and response. Among these measures is a series of wildfire drills, the first of which took place Aug. 4.

“After a wet winter created an abundance of vegetation that is now parched, we know 2019 will likely be another significant fire season in California,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in a July 29 blog post. “That is why we are making our biggest investment ever in wildfire safety.”

In the recently approved 2020-21 budget, Berkeley set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars toward wildfire safety, specifically vegetation management and emergency response, according to Arreguín’s post.

The city also recently proposed a more than $1 million outdoor emergency warning system.

“Most of our prevention goes hand-in-hand with other City departments,” said Keith May, assistant chief of the Special Operations Division at the Berkeley Fire Department, in an email. “We encourage residents to really keep their properties free of dead vegetation and work with Public Works Department and the Zero Waste Department to provide ways to dispose of the cut vegetation.”

According to the East Bay Regional Park District, the Berkeley Fire Department annually conducts inspections of more than 1,000 sites labeled as high risk. 

These fire prevention and mitigation efforts target the Wildland-Urban Interface wildlands that are considered high risk and located close to human development. Berkeley identifies the Berkeley Hills as one such region.  

Along with the Aug. 4 fire drill that was conducted south of campus, a drill took place Aug. 11 south of Cerrito Creek and north of campus. There is an additional drill planned for Aug. 25, taking place directly north of campus. These drills are intended to simulate evacuations in hazardous fire areas around Berkeley. 

“A year in the making, we’re ready to take a major step forward in the Berkeley community’s preparation for the next major wildfire,” said Berkeley Fire Chief David Brannigan in a tweet on Aug. 2.

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected].