A Cal Fire helicopter dropping water in Berkeley during the 2017 Grizzly Fire. Photo: Berkeley Fire Department

For the first time ever, starting this weekend, the city of Berkeley will hold a series of one-hour wildfire evacuation drills to help community members and first responders practice preparing for an emergency.

The first drill takes place Sunday, Aug. 4, in the Elmwood neighborhood, followed by a drill Sunday, Aug. 11, in the northeast Berkeley Hills. The final drill is set for Sunday, Aug. 25, in the area from the northern border of the UC Berkeley campus to Codornices Park. All three events are scheduled to happen from 9-10 a.m.

It’s easy to participate: Email the city and sign up for AC Alert for directions. (For those who aren’t familiar with it, AC Alert is the city’s “most essential” warning system.)

“We’re trying to get everybody we can to participate,” said Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan. “Whether people want to or not, they will know there’s an exercise happening.”

People who sign up — who live in the impacted area — will get an alert Sunday morning describing a wildfire scenario with instructions about where to go for safety, Brannigan said. Notifications will come by text, email and phone. People who would like alerts should be sure their contact information is up to date. (The city had planned to test its new “reverse 911” system — through AC Alert — to call landlines, too, but decided not to do that Sunday, he told Berkeleyside shortly after publication. The county only allows use of that system during emergencies.)

Wildfire drills are coming to Berkeley in August. See an interactive map. Image: Berkeley CERT

In addition to those notifications, Brannigan said, field teams will go door-to-door to alert residents and police will use a specialized loudspeaker that can communicate over long distances to put out warnings in the neighborhood.

Evacuation instructions will direct drill participants to two possible locations, depending on whether they have a vehicle or not. Once they reach that location, they will be debriefed.

Police, fire and possibly public works employees will also take part in the exercises, working on traffic control or other issues that arise depending on participation rates, Brannigan said.

People who don’t want to leave their homes can also participate simply by making sure their “go bags” are ready, getting the city’s notifications, and coming up with an evacuation plan. Read more on the city’s evacuation page.

The 2017 Grizzly Fire. Photo: BFD

As of earlier this week, Brannigan said a few hundred people had signed up to participate in the drills. He said that likely represents more people, however, as families or neighborhood groups may not be fully represented.

The city has used volunteers from its CERT program — which stands for Community Emergency Response Team — to do outreach and promote the drills, too. Those volunteers have been knocking on doors to try to spread the word about the events.

“Many, many people are reporting that this is the first they’ve heard of it,” Brannigan said.

The city has promoted the drills on social media and has also used the AC Alert system and Nixle to raise awareness. Wednesday, the city sent out alerts about all three drills planned in August.

“This is a message from the City of Berkeley,” read one email notice. “On the morning of Sunday August 4 there will be a wildfire evacuation drill in southeast Berkeley. This drill is a chance for residents to practice their household evacuation plans. You may see a lot of police and fire responders in Southeast Berkeley. You may hear loudspeaker announcements. DO NOT CALL 911 for drill information or questions.” 

The text alert was shorter, saying only, “On Sunday Aug 4 there will be a wildfire evacuation drill in southeast Berkeley. See email for details and to sign up.”

Brannigan said having three events will allow city staffers to learn from their experiences and make tweaks along the way.

“The goal is to improve what we do,” he said. “Even if things don’t go perfectly, that’s OK.”

All three neighborhoods where drills are planned have been impacted by fires in the past, including the Tunnel Fire that was part of Oakland-Berkeley firestorm in 1991. It’s important for the city to be prepared, Brannigan said: “It could happen anywhere.”

The city has described Sunday’s approximate drill area as “between the Berkeley-Oakland border (to the east) and Telegraph Ave. (to the west) and Dwight Way (to the north) and Alcatraz Ave. (to the south).”

A Berkeley Fire Department off-road vehicle for firefighting
A Berkeley Fire Department off-road vehicle for firefighting. Photo: BFD

Brannigan said Panoramic Hill is not part of Sunday’s drill because of the complexities of access to and from that neighborhood. The city is planning to meet with neighbors there to discuss the area-specific issues.

Councilwoman Lori Droste, who represents the Elmwood neighborhood, encouraged residents to participate in the August events. She said Friday that she and some of her colleagues had raised the issue of wildfire safety with Mayor Jesse Arreguín and asked him to put more money from the city budget into preparedness planning.

“We are really pleased that the mayor then incorporated that into his budget,” she said. Arreguín published a blog post about the upcoming wildfire evacuation drills in late July.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who represents northeast Berkeley, said she is very much looking forward to participating in the drills when they come to her distict later in the month. She said she will participate as a resident — without any advance knowledge of the scenarios — and then take part in the debriefing once she gets to the evacuation center.

Wengraf said she’d recently learned of media reports identifying the La Loma Park neighborhood in her district as “within the worst 1% in the state when it comes to population-to-evacuation-route ratios.” She plans to research that report and has worked hard to keep constituents in the loop about wildfire safety. She too said residents should be sure to sign up for the upcoming drills.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to figure out what you need to do and how you need to do it,” she said Friday. “It’s just a huge learning experience as we’re kind of all in this together trying to figure out how best to deal with the threat.”

Review an evacuation checklist created by the city and learn more on Berkeley’s fire evacuation webpage.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...