Update, Sept. 16: Councilmember Susan Wengraf’s resolution for immediate action on fire danger at Grizzly Peak was approved by the City Council during its Tuesday, Sept. 15 meeting. Read the final document here.
Gatherings, bonfires and pyrotechnics have rattled residents in the Berkeley and Oakland hills for decades, but neighborhood concerns reached new heights recently after reports of people setting off fireworks and igniting trash as explosive fires raged through the state and temperatures hit the triple-digits during a record-setting, 30-day Spare the Air alert.
In response to those concerns, Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf is introducing an emergency resolution to the City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 15, calling for immediate action from the numerous jurisdictions that have authority over the area. Fireworks are already illegal in most of Alameda County throughout the year, but residents want any gatherings or activity that could risk fire danger to be limited, too.
“A single match, cigarette, or fireworks, or even a spark from a wheel rim scraping against a rock, is enough to ignite the entire hillside during this already catastrophic wildfire season, with dry brush and low humidity,” the resolution says, “The risks are extreme, and all dangerous activities must be suspended during fire season.”
Law enforcement and other agencies from Berkeley, Oakland, Kensington, the University of California, the East Bay Regional Park District, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Moraga-Orinda Fire District oversee the Berkeley and Oakland hills. Berkeley police released a statement on Tuesday saying UC police would increase patrols in the area, in addition to Oakland police and EBRPD.
For many residents, this jumble of jurisdictions has been their main source of frustration when reporting dangerous activity, which they say has recently been concentrated in the area near the Tilden Steam Train at South Park Drive and Grizzly Peak Boulevard. A video showing a three to four people around a bonfire, and another person lighting fireworks, was doing the rounds on Nextdoor neighborhood groups after originally being shared on social media Sept. 9.
After all, if a wildfire were to break out — like the Oakland Hills fire in 1991 or the Great Fire of 1923 in Berkeley — it would pay no heed to agency boundaries.
According to an Oakland Wildfire Town Hall on Aug.31, there were seven vegetation fires caused by fireworks between May and July this year. Oakland recently added signage to the turnouts in its jurisdiction preventing cars parking between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily.
Wengraf’s resolution notes this policy, but asks for “a more aggressive approach” through law enforcement and physical barriers at turnouts across all jurisdictions. It also asks that fireworks calls in the Berkeley Hills during fire season be treated as high-priority emergencies, instead of being triaged to the non-emergency line, as they are now.
“Anxiety about the consequence of fire from residents living nearby is high, and fully justified,” she says in the resolution. “Response from law enforcement has not been effective in stopping these activities to date.”
Roads were closed this Fourth of July weekend due to fire danger, but Berkeley Fire Department spokesman Keith May said closing whole roads isn’t a feasible long-term solution because many of the hill roads are evacuation routes, or need to be accessed by emergency personnel.
May said calls for service haven’t increased in Berkeley specifically (most of the hills don’t fall under the city’s jurisdiction), but he’s received a few letters from residents concerned about general fire danger. May emphasized that, in the case of a fire, all agencies would respond with mutual aid first, and worry about the jurisdiction later.
“A part of what I’ve read is that ‘Oh, people are passing the buck,’ which I don’t want to do,” May said, acknowledging the dangerous situation. “We are trying to see how we can address the issues with all of the agencies involved.”
“Fire season” typically starts in late September in Northern California, but it has become a year-round concern due to climate change. Wildfires struck much earlier this year with a series of lightning-induced fires in the Bay Area last month, and the August Complex fire in Mendocino County that continues to grow to nearly 800,000 acres as the largest fire in state history. Coupled with smoke from over one million acres burning in Oregon right now, the Bay Area has been experiencing poor air quality and frightening skies for weeks at a time.
The City Council will discuss Wengraf’s proposal at its virtual meeting Tuesday, the first of its new session.