A eucalyptus tree in flames near Grizzly Peak. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

By Tracey Taylor and Frances Dinkelspiel 

Key facts:

  • 12: 14 a.m. Aug. 3: Berkeleyside has been updating this story regularly since we began reporting the fire at 1:41 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. The latest information is that crews are staying on scene, in the area of Grizzly Peak and Fish Ranch Road, monitoring and extinguishing hot spots, throughout the night. Alameda County Fire reports via Twitter that the fire remains at 20 acres, 20% contained, and that the cause is under investigation. We will report on how things look in the early morning.
  • 6:20 p.m. Moraga Orinda Fire Department Chief Stephen Healy told reporters the jump from 10 acres to 20 acres did not indicate a growing fire, but rather more accurate mapping of the fire’s size by helicopters. The fire has been partially contained, but dozens of hot spots are still smoldering and crews will stay on scene throughout the night. The temperature drop and marine layer will help, but darkness is a hindrance, he said.
  • 5:43 p.m. Alameda County Fire posted to Twitter that the fire was at 20 acres and 20% contained.
  • 5 p.m. Oakland Fire Department says fire is 10 acres and 10% contained and that 150-200 firefighters will stay fighting the fire all night. (Berkeley Fire Department left the scene around 5:50 p.m. saying there was no fire in Berkeley jurisdiction and that weather conditions were “beneficial.”)
  • Around 4 p.m. Berkeley Hills residents warned to be prepared as the fire grows.
  • Around 3 p.m.: Berkeley Lab buildings and Lawrence Hall of Science were evacuated, and there was talk of shutting down power both at the lab and on the UC Berkeley campus although the decision was made not to go ahead.
  • Around 1 p.m.: A unified command from an estimated nine agencies responded to the fire which jumped to the east side of Grizzly Peak and grew to cover around 10 acres. At its peak the blaze was  a five-alarm fire.
  • Around 1 p.m.: A fire broke out on the west side of Grizzly Peak Boulevard at Signpost 15. The fire jumped Grizzly Peak and moved east towards Fish Ranch Road and Contra Costa County.
Firefighters battle a five-alarm wildland fire in the Berkeley hills, near Grizzly Peak Boulevard, in Berkeley, on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. Photo by David Yee ©2017

At a 5 p.m. press conference Oakland Deputy Fire Chief Melinda Drayton reported that the 10-acre fire was 10% contained. She said 150-200 firefighters from nine local and state agencies were on hand and crews were “working feverishly” to tackle the fire. The northeast quadrant part of the fire, with its heavy vegetation and large trees, was proving the most difficult to fight, she said. Two kids’ summer camps were voluntarily evacuated. There have been no reported injuries to firefighters. “Our plan is to be here all night, and then tomorrow hopefully containment, then going into mop-up phase, and then fire watch,” she said.

The Berkeley Police are warning residents in the Berkeley hills that they should “remain prepared” should the fire near Grizzly Peak and the Contra Costa County border grow.” In a Nixle alert posted around 4:30 p.m., BPD said that as of 4:15 p.m., the 10-acre fire was partially contained, no structures were threatened, no evacuations have been ordered in Berkeley and no injuries had been reported.

They said the fire is approximately a mile from the Berkeley border and heading East.

“Anyone who lives in the hills and is preparing to go home should expect delays.”

Crews are expected to be on scene throughout the night and into Thursday, BPD said.

An Alameda County mass notification system phone and text alert about the fire was also sent out Wednesday afternoon cautioning hills residents to stay alert.

Crews from several agencies are responding to a working wildland fire Wednesday which started near Signpost 15 on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, according to the Oakland Fire Department. Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel was on scene.

Around 2:45 p.m. there were two separate areas of fire, according to Dinkelspiel who spoke to a firefighter on scene — one northern section on the west side of Grizzly Peak, which was mostly contained, and a section further south, which is on both sides of the road and heading to Contra Costa County.

Billowing smoke rising up from the hills can be seen from Berkeley and around the East Bay.

Fire on Grizzly Peak the day before

Wednesday’s fire comes in the wake of another fire the day before — Tuesday — also on Grizzly Peak. Oakland Fire Department reported, at 1:08 a.m. on Aug. 1 on Twitter, that there was a “small grass fire” 1/4 mile north of the Tilden Steam Train. Ten minutes later the department tweeted that, “approx 150′ x 150′ area. Crews have hose lines around the perimeter and fire knocked.” (Berkeleyside inadvertently shared these tweets in this story early on, before removing them, mistaking them as relating to Wednesday’s fire.)

According to East Bay Regional Park District interim fire chief John Swanson, after starting on the west side of Grizzly Peak, which is UC Berkeley property, Wednesday’s fire “quickly spotted across and jumped Grizzly Peak” which is Tilden Park property. Swanson estimates the fire is in excess of five acres, and around 3:30 p.m. he believed it was still spreading.

About 100 children who were attending summer camp in the Gillespie area of Tilden have been moved to the Golf Course parking lot in order to be picked up by their guardians. EBRPD has also closed the steam train, according to Swanson.

A group of goats on the hills, grazing on vegetation to reduce fire risk, were also moved to safety during the afternoon.

Video below by Frances Dinkelspiel:

YouTube video

Shortly before 3 p.m. personnel from the Berkeley Space Science Lab and MSRI buildings were being evacuated as a precaution, according to Dave Curtis on Twitter. Another tipster told Berkeleyside that Berkeley Lab staff were all being told to leave and power was being cut as precaution due to the fire. Spokesman Jon Weiner confirmed that “portions of the Lab” were being asked to go home.

UCPD issued an alert at 3:15 p.m. confirming an evacuation was recommended for Lawrence Hall of Science, MSRI and Space Sciences due to wildland fire. “Others should avoid the area. Road closures remain in effect,” they wrote.

However later the lab said: “We recognize that traffic leaving the Lab is near gridlock due to the current evacuation. UC Berkeley is also being evacuated, adding to the congestion. Employees who haven’t left the Lab property yet should consider carpooling or walking down hill to a safe location. “

Sometime around 2 p.m. UCPD put out an alert to the UC Berkeley campus community which stated, “Due to fire, PG&E is requiring transformers to be shut down ASAP and power will be lost across campus. Please shut down all electronic devices before 2:40 p.m.”

However later in the afternoon, UCPD Sgt. Sabrina Reich said the decision had been made not to shut down power across the campus.

Crews on Grizzly Peak. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A helicopter scoops up water from Lake Anza to fight the fire. Photo: Isabelle Gaston

Video below by Steve Crawford:

YouTube video

A helicopter drops water on the East Bay hills fire. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Fire retardant rains down on the wildland fire in the East Bay hills. Photo by David Yee

A ‘unified command’ responded to the fire, with units from Oakland, Berkeley, East Bay Regional Parks, Contra Costa County and Cal Fire.

At 1:45 p.m. Lafayette Police posted an advisory on Twitter, describing smoke in the area as being “from a grass fire in the Berkeley Hills at Grizzly Peak Blvd. at Fish Ranch Rd.”

Police have closed off section of Grizzly Peak, including at the intersection of Centennial Drive. Around 3 p.m. South Park Drive was also closed to traffic.

Around 2 p.m. Dinkelspiel reported seeing a helicopter that appeared to be carrying water overhead. Later she said there were at least two Cal Fire helicopters working the scene. She said water is being scooped up from Lake Anza.

At 2:12 p.m. OFD talked to a reporter and said 70 firefighters were on their way for a “rapid rate of spread.”

Crowd crews with chainsaws and axes were working to create a perimeter by digging up bushes and earth on the west side of Grizzly Peak so that embers don’t jump.

Berkeley Lab on lockdown in separate incident

Coincidentally, Berkeley Lab was put on lockdown on Wednesday morning due to a security alert. Staffers later expressed confusion as to whether the lockdown was related to the fire. OPD told Dinkelspiel it was investigating a crime scene in the area, possibly involving two cars, and possibly a person or people being sought by UC Berkeley police.

Around 7:30 p.m. Berkeley Lab director Michael Witherell put out a communication to the lab community summarizing the day’s events. He said that at noon, a person had entered the lab property illegally and, based on information from UCPD, the lab decided to go on lockdown. The person was found and arrested by UCPD, Witherell wrote.

Video below by Frances Dinkelspiel:

YouTube video

Crews with chainsaws and axes prepare to tackle fire. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Firefighters battle a five-alarm wildland fire in the East Bay hills. Photo by David Yee
Firefighters clear vegetation during near Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Photo by David Yee ©2017


UC Police on scene where they closed off Grizzly Peak at Centennial Drive. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The wildfire as seen from University Avenue in Berkeley at around 1:30 p.m. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Photo. taken around 1:30 p.m. by Daniel Mayeri

This developing story was updated over many hours as we gathered information.

Natalie Orenstein contributed reporting to this story.

Berkeleyside is Berkeley, California’s independently-owned local news site. Learn more about the Berkeleyside team. Questions? Email editors@berkeleyside.org.