‘The fires are getting hotter’: City of Berkeley hosts forum to discuss upcoming wildfire season plans

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The city of Berkeley hosted a virtual forum Thursday to discuss the upcoming fire season and wildfire prevention efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sponsored by City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, the meeting featured speakers from local agencies involved in fire safety protocol in the city and the greater East Bay. Participants also answered community questions during the forum.

“Although everyone has been very focused on the virus, we would be very negligent if we ignored the threats we face this fire season,” Wengraf said during the meeting.

The meeting began with remarks from Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who said Berkeley is entering fire season amid drought conditions. Arreguín added that resources will continue to be allocated to wildfire prevention despite the city’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Next, Berkeley Fire Department, or BFD, Chief Dave Brannigan discussed the fire department’s wildfire mitigation plans and programs.

“Despite COVID and the staffing challenges that resulted from that, we are fully participating in the mutual aid system this year so that we can go out and send resources and receive help if we need it here in Berkeley,” Brannigan said during the forum.

After, John Walsh, PG&E senior public safety specialist for Alameda County, discussed the utility company’s shifting approach to its Public Safety Power Shutoff, or PSPS, program. The PSPS program consists of protocol and efforts to make the shut-off events less intrusive for the public while preventing ignitions and unnecessary shut-offs of residents’ power.

Walsh noted that PG&E is making efforts to improve shut-offs.

“For 2020, we want to make them smaller in size. We want to make them shorter in length and smarter for customers,” Walsh said at the meeting.

Walsh also discussed community resource centers, or CRCs, which offer basic resources and up-to-date information for residents left without power during a PSPS event

Berkeley is currently allocated one CRC location, with additional locations being set up in Oakland and elsewhere in Alameda County, Walsh added.

“We have COVID-19 concerns, and so these CRCs basically bring everyone together in a relatively small area,” Walsh said at the meeting.  “We’re planning for a different CRC deployment model.”

BFD Assistant Chief Keith May then discussed wildfire evacuation planning for the city, which he said remains a dynamic process. According to May, BFD is working to establish clear and accessible evacuation routes and provide real-time mapping systems for evacuations.

He added that BFD is set to offer community-safe refuge areas in the event of evacuations and is building resources to provide transportation from the refuge areas.

Wengraf concluded the meeting with remarks emphasizing the increasing threat of wildfires and efforts to refine safety measures.

“The threat of wildfire is very real. The fires are getting hotter, our fire season is getting longer,” Wengraf said during the meeting. “Are we doing enough? No. We have to do more.”

Contact Hanna Lykke at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hannaathearstDC.