‘Fire knows no boundaries’: Berkeley prepares for nearing fire season

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Lisi Ludwig/File
The Berkeley Fire Department and city leaders are preparing residents for the upcoming fire season.

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As fire season approaches, Berkeley leaders have been preparing for damage mitigation, educating residents and increasing funding to spread awareness and promote fire safety.

Utilizing funding from Measure FF a 2020 Berkeley ordinance increasing funding for emergency response, fire mitigation and wildfire prevention Berkeley Fire Department, or BFD, has “bolstered” its workforce and expanded personnel to address changes in the annual fire season, according to BFD Assistant Fire Chief Keith May. May said funding from the measure has allowed BFD to increase fire inspections from 1300 homes in 2021 to 8500, educating residents in the process about how to mitigate potential damage to their homes in the event of a fire.

“We can’t predict when a fire will start, but we can predict whether it will move fast on certain types of days,” May said. “We encourage people to visit our website, especially evacuation preparedness, and learn as much as you can and to spread awareness.”

According to May, inspectors assess properties based on a variety of factors, including informing residents of future codes that have yet to take effect and allowing residents to prepare for changes in fire safety expectations years in advance. He noted in particular a “zero to five” rule down the road that would mandate high-risk homes to “hardscape” the five-foot zone surrounding their home with pebbles or rocks, for example, to prevent plant debris from accumulating near property structures.

For now, inspectors have been advising residents to clear dead vegetation at a 5 to 30 foot clearance, clearing brush from high voltage areas on the property, clearing possibly hazardous fire fuels and increasing emergency responders’ accessibility to the property, according to May.

Between September 2021 and May 2022, 6480 properties have been inspected, with 5784 receiving a passing assessment, according to Laurie McWhorter, legislative aide to City Councilmember Susan Wengraf.

“Most people are very happy to comply with inspections, they have had a really good inspection response,” Wengraf said. “Individuals have to do their fair share and we all do have a responsibility to do our fair share and keep each other safe.”

While Wengraf noted a general compliance with the increase in inspections, she did address concerns of financial ability to comply with inspection standards. She added some services, for example, clearing overhanging tree limbs, can cost about $1400.

Wengraf, who represents a large portion of the Berkeley hills, said her district lies entirely in BFD and Cal Fire designated high severity fire hazard zones. In her time as a Berkeley city councilmember, Wengraf has hosted annual town hall meetings with constituents to spread awareness of at-home damage mitigation steps, as well as take in concerns.

She added a primary topic at the latest presentation was on fire insurance and damages awareness, alleging insurance companies are not renewing coverage for areas of high fire risk.

While she recognized the increased severity of the fire season, Wengraf remained optimistic about Berkeley’s preparedness. She cited a recent $2.9 million state grant to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as first reported by Berkeleyside, to clear surrounding hazardous brush and eucalyptus trees, as well as pending expansion of evacuation notification technology for city residents.

“Fire doesn’t know boundaries and we need to be working together to combat this threat,” Wengraf said.

Matt Brown is the executive news editor. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @maattttbrown.