Twice in the last century, Berkeley has burned.
On Sept. 17, 1923, northeasterly winds pushed a fire into the Berkeley Hills that swept across Northside, destroying upward of 500 structures and leaving as many as 4,000 people homeless. The ASUC famously organized students to the north border of campus to fight the fire as it approached Hearst Avenue. By sheer miracle, the winds changed and the campus was spared.
On Oct. 20, 1991, a small grass fire from the day prior rapidly spread, driven by those very same northeasterly winds, devastating the hills of northern Oakland and southeast Berkeley. Twenty-five lives were lost, and thousands of structures were destroyed. Only when the winds suddenly calmed was the fire able to be contained.
In the last 100 years, the technology with which we are equipped to fight wildfires has advanced dramatically. Public awareness of wildfire risk has significantly improved. Evacuation routes are better planned, fire departments are better staffed and by and large, residents seem to be better prepared.
But ultimately, are we safer today in Berkeley from the risk of wildfire than we were 100 years ago?
It’s hard to say. In many ways, probably not.
When the president of the United States ignores climate change and attests that the wildfires in California are due to our failure to rake our forests, it is easy to mock him. He sounds like a fool. It is harder, however, to reconcile with how the genocide of Indigenous populations and decades of fire suppression have set us up for the calamities we’re seeing now across California. In so many ways, the wildfire crisis we are experiencing today is of our government’s own making.
Indigenous communities and firefighters have been warning us for years that California is a climate meant to burn. Small, healthy fires clear underbrush and create natural buffers across the state. “Good fires” are a part of our ecosystem, a part of the natural order facilitated by Indigenous practices for thousands of years. But over the last hundred years, the U.S. Forest Service’s focus on fire suppression has helped enable an untenable buildup of tinder across the state.
The combination of hotter summers and autumns brought about by climate change and the accumulation of fuel in our forests has created a perfect storm for the wildfires that have defined recent years. Orange skies, raining ash and toxic air will become a Californian norm if the state and federal government do not take dramatic action.
Right here in Berkeley, the hills of the East Bay are packed with invasive eucalyptus, planted and abandoned a century ago with the fruitless vision of a thriving tinder industry. The branches, bark, shavings and leaves of these trees have created a stockpile of ladder fuels that make it possible for otherwise small fires to climb into the canopy and spread rapidly. The East Bay hills are a combustible tinderbox waiting to explode.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom convened local elected officials from Berkeley and Oakland at Tilden Park in the East Bay hills to highlight the work the state is doing to ramp up wildfire prevention efforts along the wildland-urban interface. That was in 2019. This is 2020. Six of the largest fires in California history ignited this year alone. Our firefighters are overworked and under-resourced. We must do more.
This November, Berkeley citizens have an opportunity to make a massive investment in fire protection, helping ensure that our city is prepared for the day disaster strikes. It is not a question of if, but when.
The Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to put Measure FF on the ballot this November, which would generate $8.5 million annually to keep Berkeley prepared. By way of a modest parcel tax that exempts low-income homeowners, Measure FF would fund vegetation management and fire fuel reduction programs, public education and evacuation planning, additional ambulances and improved staffing capacity, a new emergency alert system and modernization of our 911 dispatch center.
So much of the Berkeley we know and love is at risk. The very high fire hazard severity zone in Berkeley encompasses part of the UC campus, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Clark Kerr Campus, frat row, various co-ops and much more. But truly, wildfire preparedness is an issue that transcends so many of the divisions in this city, between the hills and the flats, students and neighbors. When disaster strikes, it will affect our entire community. We must be prepared.
Of the many excellent ballot measures Berkeley citizens will vote on this November, none are of such urgent consequence as Measure FF is. And significantly, Measure FF requires two-thirds of the vote to pass, not a simple majority. So talk to your neighbors, talk to your friends, talk to friends of your friends. It is incumbent upon us all to do everything we can to ensure the passage of Measure FF. The future and safety of our city are at stake.
Learn more about Measure FF at berkeleyprepared.com. Register to vote in Berkeley by Oct. 19, and cast your ballot by Nov. 3 to keep Berkeley prepared.
Rigel Robinson is a Berkeley City Council member and served as the 2016-17 ASUC environmental community senator. Sarah Bancroft is the 2020-21 ASUC environmental community senator.