Opinion: Reducing fuel loads is the cheapest, quickest and best defense against Berkeley’s next firestorm

Undergrounding utilities in Berkeley would provide some safety benefits and aesthetic upgrades. But it’s the equivalent of doing a kitchen remodel before replacing the leaky roof.

After three years of work by members of Berkeley’s Public Works, Transportation and Disaster and Fire Safety Commissions, a conceptual study to underground wires in Berkeley was presented to the Berkeley City Council at last Tuesday’s Council work session. This Tuesday, Feb. 27, Council will be asked to vote on a recommendation to continue developing a plan.

The commission’s study is well-researched, and lists a variety of benefits associated with undergrounding. But the study also estimates costs to underground just our arterial and collector streets at $200 million. And, even if well-funded, the process would take decades to implement.

Meanwhile, there are numerous impactful measures we can implement that are much less expensive, faster and easier to roll out, and offer greater protection. In light of the extreme fire and earthquake dangers we face, Berkeley should prioritize these measures.

Berkeley’s greatest threat is a wildland fire driven by Diablo winds, similar to the recent North Bay fires that killed 29 and caused $6 billion in damage. It is the same threat that took 25 lives and 3,000 homes in the 1991 Oakland/Berkeley Fire, and the 1923 fire that swept from Inspiration Point to Wildcat Canyon and over Grizzly Peak, burning more than 600 North Berkeley homes. As the study notes, there has been a large wildfire every 20 years since 1900.

In other words, our next firestorm is overdue.

150 years ago, settlers new to California planted fast-growing eucalyptus and pines to simulate the lush look of the East Coast. These trees now saturate our parks and hills with enough fuel to sustain a 2,000 degree firestorm all the way down to Shattuck Avenue, and with the help of wind-driven embers, far beyond.

In 1991, the nearly instantaneous spread of the firestorm, combined with vehicle congestion on steep, narrow winding streets, was the primary cause of the tragic loss of lives. According to an LA Times article, “people who died… fell victim to the brutally, unexpectedly swift speed of the flames… victims trying to flee encountered streets blocked by debris or by vehicles that had exploded and fallen from narrow, winding roads higher up the hillside.”

The primary safety benefit described in the conceptual study is improved evacuation and emergency routes, ostensibly achieved by undergrounding power lines on east/west collector streets such as Cedar and Dwight. While this may sound reasonable, undergrounding on collector streets is of limited value: they are located in areas with a grid pattern, where alternative routes are relatively easy to find.

By contrast, the study notes that most streets in Berkeley’s extreme fire hazard zone just below Grizzly Peak, where residents have much more limited options for evacuation, are likely to never be undergrounded, due to steep, unstable terrain. Undergrounding in Berkeley’s highest fire zones could be helpful, but isn’t feasible, while undergrounding on collector streets is feasible, but costly and of limited value.

Another argument made is that undergrounding might reduce a source of fire ignition. While some of the North Bay fires were started by high voltage lines in wooded areas, the vast majority of fires in Alameda County – including wildland fires – are started by other means, including cigarettes thrown from car windows, cars with hot engines on dry grasses, campfires improperly doused, and, sadly, arson.

Berkeley’s urban electrical grid isn’t like rural Sonoma County’s, and isn’t located where the next catastrophic firestorm is likely to begin – in the parklands on the other side of the ridge. If we are serious about preventing a firestorm ignited by power lines, we must work quickly and aggressively with the Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and PG&E to improve the high voltage lines that cross Wildcat Canyon and Tilden parks.

If we really want to prevent a catastrophic fire, reducing fuels both outside and within Berkeley is our best shot. The fuel load to our east may very well be the highest in the United States to directly adjoin a dense urban area. Trees and brush in Wildcat Canyon, Tilden Park and on private land could be significantly reduced for a fraction of the cost of even limited undergrounding. Reducing fuel loads helps irrespective of a fire’s source of ignition, and could be implemented over the course of just a few years.

Another measure both simpler and less expensive than undergrounding is a better notification system, ensuring all residents can evacuate quickly. Even if it means going door to door to sign people up, Berkeley should work to ensure that everyone in our highest risk fire areas receives notices from Alameda County’s AC Alert System. And, knowing that land-lines and cell phones are incapable of waking everyone up, we must reconsider sirens.

Undergrounding utilities in Berkeley would provide some safety benefits, and aesthetic upgrades. But it’s the equivalent of doing a kitchen remodel before replacing the leaky roof. Significantly higher electricity taxes could provide funds, but rate-payers are unlikely to accept the large increases. This is especially true when the day-to-day benefits of undergrounding accrue primarily to homes with improved views, and the public safety benefits in both earthquakes and fires are limited. Better, cheaper and more easily implemented alternatives exist; it is incumbent on our City Council give them priority.

John Hitchen is a retired supervisor of park operations for the East Bay Regional Parks District. A resident of North Berkeley, he has worked for more than 25 years on fire prevention, disaster planning and vegetation management. He is Vice Chair of the Public Works Commission, one of the three commissions that created the undergrounding study discussed here. He was not part of the subcommittee that worked on the document.