At times, the city of Berkeley looks like it’s coming to terms with its fundamental fire and disaster planning and preparedness issues — some would say ‘finally.’

Last year saw the first high fire risk area evacuation drill ever! Hundreds of us heeded the call, walking to Live Oak Park or driving to James Kenney Park. In the latter case, we were warmly greeted with donuts and sobering thoughts, including the notion that an early departure may be the only chance we get. Indeed, one fire expert said he would not let his young daughter sleep over at friends’ in the hills during the fire season.

In last year’s evacuation drill there were no downed poles or wires crossing our sidewalks and streets. But, go figure, Cedar St. the main evacuation route for 15,000 people is not undergrounded. Given the current snail’s pace of planned arterial undergrounding, it will be many years, possibly a decade, before it is undergrounded.

There is no room for complacency. In assessing recent fires storm data, it is estimated that with a 40 knot northeast wind blowing in the Berkeley Hills, it would take as little as 45 minutes for fire to reach Shattuck Avenue.

The Berkeley City Council meeting of Feb. 25, offers a practical litmus test of how prepared our civic leaders are to address public safety. We will learn if and where the rhetoric meets the road, or in this case the sidewalk that crosses in front of Hillside School. For almost 100 years, the sidewalk–a de facto but not de jure public pedestrian way – has seamlessly connected Buena Vista Way and Le Roy Avenue, and thus Cedar Street, which is a major artery and evacuation route.

The vehicle-wide cement sidewalk was rebuilt by the prior owner (a private school) and is part of the original school design of 1924. One can still ride a bike or skate board or push a stroller or walker or guide a wheelchair across this sidewalk with nary a bump, ramp, gate or fence to interfere.

Without doubt neighbors are lucky that Hillside’s new owner is investing in the building and grounds as his personal residence, and art center. All good, almost. The sidewalk is the rub.

Only recently has the sidewalk has been mercifully free of house trailers, trucks and debris haulers. Potted trees now dot the area. Foot and bike traffic is regularly unimpeded for the first time in a while. Apparently the message about the sidewalk has been received but whereas some had hoped for a frank, open and direct exchange these hopes were regularly rebuffed. Indeed, at the SEEDS ‘resolution’ meeting suggested by the Zoning Adjustment Board, the owner’s architect said the sidewalk was “off the table for discussion!”

Many hope that the City Council will amend the Zoning Adjustments Board and Landmarks Preservation Commission approvals that allowed 1581 Le Roy Avenue to be converted from a school into a private residence to explicitly ensure that no fencing, gates or parking is permitted on this sidewalk. The sidewalk is used daily by many walking or riding to and from the UC campus and downtown, but this is also an emergency route of growing importance. Hillside is located in a tier 2 high fire hazard evacuation zone as determined by the city and the CPUC. As last year’s evacuation drill reminds us, as many as 15,000 people and an unprecedented number of cars will need to move downhill while emergency responders will need to move up the same few arterial streets. This is a secondary disaster waiting to happen and is obvious to anyone who lives here.

For public safety, no one should be permitted to encumber, limit or close such vital routes. Leaving public access up to individual goodwill or personal permission is insufficient assurance. Lives are at stake. The fire season is longer, more intense and less predictable than ever. We are not adequately prepared and need to preserve and enhance every avenue of defense.

Michael Scott was born and raised in Berkeley and graduated from Hillside Public Elementary School in 1957.
Michael Scott was born and raised in Berkeley and graduated from Hillside Public Elementary School in 1957.