Police and firefighters will be out in the North Berkeley neighborhoods this week practicing wildfire response (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso
Firefighters have been conducting wildfire response exercises in the community (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

How long does it take to evacuate a block of Berkeley homes threatened by an encroaching fire? Ten minutes, 30 minutes, more? That was a question posed by Lt. Andrew Rateaver, Area 2 Commander with the Berkeley Police Department, at a community meeting on wildfire safety convened by council members Susan Wengraf, Laurie Capitelli and Lori Droste on Oct. 1.

The gathering was prompted by several inescapable, sobering facts: the state’s ongoing four-year drought is creating the perfect conditions for wildfires; trees are drying up; wildfires are spreading faster than in 30 years; and wildfires in western states generally are lasting 78 days longer on average than in the past. All these statistics were cited by Timothy Buroughs from the City of Berkeley’s resilience office. “This is not a blip, it’s a trend,” he said. More evidence if it were needed: the state Forest Service now spends more than 50% of its budget on fighting fires — as one of its directors said recently: “We’re no longer a forest service, we’re a fire department.”

Along with Rateaver, the panel on Thursday included EBRPD Fire Chief Dan McCormick; David Brannigan, assistant fire chief of the Berkeley Fire Department; Farid Javandel, director of transportation at the City of Berkeley; and EBMUD director Andy Katz. Councilman Kriss Worthington was also in attendance.

The answer to Lt Rateaver’s question is 35 minutes, as measured by BPD in an exercise this summer that involved knocking on front doors on a 15-home stretch of Grizzly Peak, explaining once, and sometimes twice, what was happening and what residents should do, and then moving on. As Rateaver said, such a process can take much longer if it is happening on a winding, hilly street where the fire danger is likely to be more acute, and where houses are not cheek by jowl. Moral of the story: don’t wait for  a knock on the door. Leave your home. As BFD’s Brannigan put it: “There’s no cavalry coming to get you out.”

When you do leave your home, try to do so on foot if that’s possible. Dramatic video footage compiled by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (below), and screened at the meeting, showed terrified residents cowering in slow-moving cars trying to escape the 1991 Oakland Firestorm while flames licked at the wheels of their vehicles and people urged them to flee on foot.

YouTube video

The message echoed by all the experts Thursday was to focus on prevention and preparation: prune shrubs and dry leaves to reduce flammable objects near your home; sign up for emergency notification alerts; get trained on emergency preparedness; take advantage of incentives to organize your neighborhood — and help keep streets accessible to emergency vehicles. To this last point, Wengraf encouraged the full room at the Northbrae Community Church to “clear out your garages,” and park cars there. Javandel said 258 roads in the Berkeley Hills are not accessible to fire trucks.

There were some reasons to be more optimistic than, say, 24 years ago when the Oakland Firestorm ended up killing 25 people, injuring 150 others and destroying 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. Brannigan reported that fire departments are now much better equipped to handle wildfires as well as urban ones. They have better apparatus, equipment and protective gear, and their training is superior. Annual fire inspections have increased from 750 to around 3,000.

Another direct result of the 1991 fire is much improved Mutual Response Aid, whereby neighboring first responders join forces. Brannigan also said agencies are working much more closely with the community. “We are going into neighborhoods now and it’s a participative process.”

Meanwhile, while Berkeley is doing well as a city in conserving water — Katz reported that EBMUD customers have cut their use by 20% —  the outlook is not all that rosy. “We are currently at 46% of our storage capacity — we can only predict that we’ll have a reliable water supply through 2018,” Katz said. ” Mentioning the much heralded El Niño, Katz concluded: “We are hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.”

The city offers many tips related to wildfire evacuation online. Learn more:

Additional resources from the city of Berkeley:

Want alerts from the city in case of a disaster or other public safety incident? Sign up for Nixle and AC Alert (this link was updated in 2017). In 2011, for the 20-year anniversary, Berkeleyside took a close look at the impacts of the 1991 firestorm in the Berkeley and Oakland hills. See the complete series.

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Berkeley, Albany disaster prep day comes Oct. 18 (09.22.14)
Magnitude 6 earthquake rattles Berkeley in early hours (08.24.14)
Are you ready to help kids, pets when disaster strikes? (04.21.14)
Berkeley CERT volunteer academy takes off this weekend (08.02.13)
Berkeley unites for earthquake safety (04.29.13)
Get prepared for an emergency: Here’s how (10.21.11)
Loss assessment: Building anew after devastation (10.20.11)
Twenty years after a catastrophe, recollections — Part 3 (10.19.11)
Twenty years after a catastrophe, recollections — Part 2 (10.18.11)
On 20th anniversary, community remembers Firestorm (10.06.11)

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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...