Angel Island wildfire. Photo: Chris Wage
One of the last significant wildfires in the Bay Area was on Angel Island in October 2008. Photo: Chris Wage/Creative Commons

Allen Benitez, Chief of Protective Services at Berkeley Lab admits he’s nervous.

“With the drought this summer, there is an extraordinarily high risk of fire in the hills,” he said.

The Lab’s location in the Berkeley foothills, surrounded by trees and vegetation, makes the task of keeping that risk as low as possible daunting. The fact that there are 5,000 to 7,000 people on the campus at any one time, and that an evacuation would entail moving all of them off a fenced property through just one gate, puts the lab — as Benitez terms it — in “a tough spot.”

Benitez will be one of several fire experts speaking at a Fire Forum for the community on Monday June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Berkeley’s Northbrae Church. He will be joined by, among others, Berkeley Fire Department Chief Gil Dong; Robert Chew, Cal Fire’s assistant chief of East Bay operations; Sal Genito, associate director of Grounds and Environmental Services at UC Berkeley; and Brad Gallup from the East Bay Regional Parks District.

On the agenda: the efforts of these different agencies to protect the community from a wildfire in extremely dry and dangerous drought conditions, a discussion of ways for residents to minimize danger, the notification systems that are used, as well as escape routes.

Berkeley Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who is organizing the forum, said, “This is really the first time, to my knowledge, all of these agencies have gotten together to discuss fire danger/safety at a community forum in Berkeley. This year especially, everyone agrees it is a very serious concern.”

Gallup at the parks district said the agency has received extra funding this year for its fuels maintenance program because of the drought, including from FEMA.

The parks district’s 2010 Fuels Plan calls for the treatment of over 3,000 acres over a 10-15 year period, he said. An example of fuel management, he added, might be the removal of some of the trees in a 100-acre stand of Eucalyptus, as well as ground material. Hazardous vegetation, including Eucalyptus, are currently being cut back on Wildcat Canyon Road in Tilden park, for instance.

Vegetation management is also the principal pre-emptive measure taken to reduce the risk and spread of a fire at the Berkeley Lab. It’s a year-round project, Benitez said. Last July the Lab also participated in a full site-wide evacuation practice, and another one is being planned, he said.

Other than that, all those whose job is to address the risk of wildfires, as well as combat them when they occur, are avid weather forecast watchers.

“We pay very close attention to the weather, including humidity and wind levels,” said Benitez, who added that high winds during a wildfire could blow ash into Lab buildings and cause contamination, even though most of the’ structures on campus are fire-resistant.

The older, wooden Lab buildings that don’t have sprinklers likely won’t survive a blaze, however. “We expect to lose those in a wildfire,” Benitez said.

The Fire Forum is on Monday, June 2, 7:30 p.m. at Northbrae Church, 941 The Alameda, Berkeley.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...