Berkeley community must work together to prepare for wildfires

Illustration of wildfires in Berkeley
Vivian Du/Staff

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Berkeley prides itself as a resilient city. But this resiliency, especially against natural disasters such as wildfires, requires a collaborative community effort to mitigate threats and prepare for emergencies.

Wildfires are a major threat in California, fueled in part by the worsening climate crisis. The National Interagency Fire Center is expecting another above-average season this year, with the upcoming months being the most severe. Five of the 10 most destructive fires in California’s history took place in the last two years. No stranger to wildfires, two of California’s 20 most destructive fires ever were in Berkeley. On Sept. 17, 1923, a fire swept southwest from Wildcat Canyon, destroying 584 homes throughout the La Loma Park and Northside neighborhoods, ending its path of destruction at Shattuck Avenue and Hearst Avenue. On Oct. 20, 1991, the Oakland Firestorm decimated the northern Oakland Hills, including southeast Berkeley. The Oakland Firestorm was California’s worst fire prior to 2017, as 25 people lost their lives and 2,843 single-family homes and 433 apartment and condominium units were destroyed.

Although it is impossible to reduce the risk of wildfire in Berkeley to insignificant levels, there are many things that the city of Berkeley is actively working on to make our community more resistant to wildfire. Earlier this year, we joined Gov. Gavin Newsom and fire officials in announcing the creation of the North Orinda Fuel Break, one of multiple projects the state funded and expedited to address fire safety. This project will create a 14 mile firebreak between the wildland-urban interface in Berkeley to the west and Orinda to the east.

Our city budget places significant resources into emergency preparedness and wildfire prevention. Over the next two years, we are investing $180,000 in disaster response training and equipment and over $233,000 in vegetation management on city properties. City Council will also be considering an investment of $1.1 million for an outdoor emergency warning system in this November’s budget update. This warning system would be used to notify the community in the event of a wildfire or other disaster. In addition, Safe Passages, a program to ensure that emergency responders can gain access through narrow, winding roads, will be starting shortly.

Even with the best precautionary measures from the city, Berkeley residents must prepare themselves for the dangers of a wildfire. To achieve this goal, we’re educating our residents about strategies to manage their risk. Last month, the city held coordinated wildfire evacuation drills in three high-risk hill neighborhoods. This exercise gave both residents and first responders essential practice and information about what works and what doesn’t work, which is critical to gaining a better understanding of what challenges need to be addressed in order to be safe. The entire city of Berkeley is at risk of wildfires, as embers from a wind-driven fire can travel over a mile and reignite. That is why all Berkeley residents should be ready, including the students, staff and faculty of UC Berkeley.

Here’s how to prepare for wildfires:

  • Get to know your neighbors. You will need to rely on each other in a real emergency.
  • Learn what you have to do to harden your home. This link is helpful: www.readyforwildfire.org.
  • Think about where you will go if you need to evacuate. Do you have friends or relatives living in areas that will be safe?
  • If the Fire Department declares a red flag day in Berkeley and PG&E shuts off power, think about leaving your home and going someplace where you will be out of harm’s way.
  • Sign up for AC Alert to get notifications of emergencies and important safety information.
  • Prepare a “go bag” to take with you in an emergency. Items should include a flashlight/headlamp, water, medications, snacks, important documents, an emergency blanket, cash, a portable radio & batteries, sturdy shoes and socks, a whistle and a change of clothing.
  • Develop an evacuation plan that includes two routes by car or bicycle and two routes by foot.
  • Have a family point of contact outside the Bay Area.
  • Tune in to 1610AM, Berkeley’s Emergency Radio Station for updated information.
  • Check out the City website for more useful information on how to prepare for wildfires.

We live in a very beautiful area with very high risks. Berkeley is susceptible to earthquakes, flooding and wildfires. We know that what happened in Santa Rosa in 2017 and Paradise in 2018 could happen here in Berkeley, as it did in 1923 and 1991. While the city and the state work diligently to reduce the threat of wildfires, the risk can never be eliminated. Our neighboring cities, our universities and schools and our residents all need to work together to be prepared in the event of a catastrophic wildfire. The time is now.

Jesse Arreguín is the mayor of Berkeley. Susan Wengraf is the vice mayor of Berkeley, representing District 6, which includes Northside and the northeast Berkeley Hills.