‘We have to be adaptive’: Berkeley prepares for wildfire season

photo of a Berkeley Fire Department truck and some firefighters
Connor Lin/Senior Staff
The Berkeley Fire Department's firefighters retrieve tools from their firetrucks, parked near the intersection of Haste Street and Bowditch Street. The city of Berkeley and BFD assemble resources in preparation for wildfire season.

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As California’s wildfire season approaches, the Berkeley Fire Department, or BFD, and the city of Berkeley have prepared a variety of resources in anticipation of the hot and dry months ahead.

Wildfire season in California typically begins in the fall and can last through the end of the year, according to J. Keith Gilless, professor emeritus of forest economics at UC Berkeley. Gilless, who also chairs the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, added that the current drought exacerbates existing conditions.

“This is the second year of a historically severe drought,” said BFD spokesperson Keith May in an email. “At the end of July this year, Cal Fire reported a 257% increase in acres burned compared to the same time last year.”

City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose district is in a “very high fire hazard zone,” described how the city is preparing for this year’s wildfire season, such as clearing city property of flammable debris and working with neighboring jurisdictions on a joint protection plan.

Wengraf added the city launched a pilot of the Safe Passages program last year, which enables first responders to get through the narrow, curvy streets in the hills by limiting residential street parking.

Measure FF, which voters passed last November, allocates $8.5 million annually for additional ambulances and wildfire inspectors who will inspect property in the wildland-urban interface, Wengraf said. The measure, funded by a tax on residents, is a “sustainable” and “permanent” revenue source for emergency disaster response that includes provisions for earthquakes in addition to wildfires, according to Wengraf.

Measure FF will also enable the BFD to add a new wildland-urban interface division and install an outdoor warning system, May added.

The BFD is also monitoring the Caldor Fire in El Dorado and Amador counties because of its proximity to the Berkeley Echo Lake Camp. May said the department sent crews to the location Aug. 24, but had to retreat days later when the fire front moved through the camp. The crews are still working to protect the facilities, but May noted there are no confirmed reports of damage as of press time.

Berkeley residents can prepare for the encroaching wildfire season in a number of ways, according to city Mayor Jesse Arreguín.

Besides having a fire safety plan, Arreguín recommends signing up for AC Alert and Nixle messages, packing a “go-bag” with essential supplies and documents and memorizing evacuation zones using the city’s new management program Zonehaven. Residents who live in the hills should plan on evacuating early to avoid traffic jams, Arreguín added.

“We can’t really talk about fire season anymore; it’s year round,” Wengraf said. “We have to be adaptive and nimble in our responses in order to meet the challenge.”

Contact Riley Cooke at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rrileycooke.