Berkeley first responders have three drills in August to work on how to respond during a wildfire. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A car fire on Tunnel Road quickly spread Sunday morning into trees and houses on Oak Ridge Road in Berkeley, prompting residents to evacuate to city-run refuge centers outside the fire zone.

Berkeley police and firefighters worked together to help free Claremont neighborhood residents who were trapped in their homes and could not escape on their own. One firefighter commandeered a U-Haul truck to shuttle 80 community members to an evacuation center that had been designated as a safe area.

Fortunately for everyone, the disaster was only a drill. Sunday’s one-hour exercise was the first of three planned events in the city in August. The next one comes Sunday, followed by the final drill Aug. 25.

As part of the drill, extreme fire weather, with strong easterly winds, blew embers from the fire deeper into the city. Within minutes, the blaze was spreading down Telegraph Avenue. Every minute, new reports came in over the emergency radio about more people who needed help or a new wrinkle that needed to be addressed: more threatened homes, lost power to the pumping stations that make water available in the city and more.

Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan told Berkeleyside the exercises will be significant opportunities for first responders and community members alike to figure out what the challenges might be during a response to a natural disaster in Berkeley. The city plans to use lessons learned from each drill to improve how staffers handle the one that follows.

About 70 members of the public took part in Sunday’s drill, bringing their children, “go bags” and even their pets to evacuation centers set up at the Ed Roberts Campus and Frances Albrier Community Center in San Pablo Park. Brannigan said seeing people with their pets was particularly inspiring because it tends to be one of the main reasons people refuse to evacuate — when they can’t find beloved animals or don’t have a way to get them out safely.

As part of the drill, police and fire supervisors set up a command post at Berkeley Fire Station No. 2 on Berkeley Way downtown to practice working together to track the developing disaster and respond to it together. Police also took the opportunity to test new loudspeakers that can communicate over long distances to put out warnings to residents.

For Bay Area agencies, Berkeley may be leading the pack in terms of practice for this type of disaster. Brannigan said the Moraga-Orinda Fire District did evacuation drills last year, but he isn’t aware of other agencies that have done them.

Brannigan said the city has already found ways to improve for this coming Sunday’s drill, making communication more streamlined at the command post and sending out joint police-and-fire teams to respond to calls for help. BFD and BPD are also looking at ways to keep track better of the rapid-fire calls that come in about people needing assistance.

Some people told the city they did not get the notifications about the drill that they were expecting. Brannigan said the city would look into those reports on an individual basis to ensure it’s not an issue going forward.

“This was a good first test,” Brannigan said. “We’re working hard to get the next exercise better to incorporate learning points. And so we really want to encourage people to sign up.”

He said residents should be sure to check their AC Alert accounts to be sure their contact information is up to date. Residents should also email the city (if they have not done so already) to help the city track participation.

As part of Sunday’s drill, the Albany Fire Department had a supervisor at Berkeley Way to practice what a mutual aid response might look like if that agency is called to help Berkeley firefighters.

There were also staff members from other fire agencies assessing the response in real time to give Berkeley feedback.

Capt. Craig Hollis from the Capay Valley Fire Department in Yolo County was one of the evaluators. Hollis grew up in Berkeley and still has family members living on El Camino Real, he said, a street that was within the fire zone in Sunday’s exercise. Even though the drill was just a test, it still had an emotional impact on Hollis, who lived through the Oakland-Berkeley firestorm of 1991 and was part of a bucket brigade at that time.

“Every time someone said ‘El Camino Real’ on the radio, I got chills,” he said.

Hollis said, from what he observed, the city did well with its communication during the drill, as well as how it handled rescues and collaborated with police: “It was a good unified effort.”

One thing the city might tweak, Hollis added, would be to move a bit faster to call in critical resources from outside the city. That’s because it can take time to get outside supplies, personnel and resources moving in the right direction and committed to a local incident.

“You want a full response to come,” he said. “You can always turn them back.”

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...