Berkeley firefighters get $12.7M to tackle growing wildfire threat

Measure FF funds will allow the fire department to prepare for wildfires, and hire and train more staff.

A fire truck with the Berkeley Fire Department. Credit: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley Fire Department will have additional funding to prepare for the wildfire season and provide improved emergency services after the City Council passed the 2021-22 budget this week.

Over $5 million of the $12.7 million Measure FF funds will go directly toward emergency preparedness, including writing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, installing new evacuation warning sirens, and conducting neighborhood evacuation drills and home inspections.

Other funds will be used toward building a larger training facility, purchasing new ambulances, hiring additional staff and investing in training and professional development, according to Interim Deputy Fire Chief David Sprague.

Click here for a look at the Berkeley Fire Department’s Measure FF plan

“Essentially, we have the opportunity to completely rebuild our department,” Sprague said.

In November 2020, voters passed Measure FF, a parcel tax for emergency response and preparedness that brings in an additional $8.5 million in revenue each year for the fire department. This year’s Measure FF money includes $4 million from the spring that had not been allocated.

How this year’s Measure FF funds will be spent. Credit: Berkeley Fire Department

With little rainfall and California now in its second year of drought, meteorologists are predicting a dire fire season. The high fire risk means there is more pressure than ever on the fire department to be ready in a major wildfire, Sprague said.

“It’s always been a huge concern for us. It gets more and more concerning every year,” he said, adding that the increased population density in the hills and drought conditions mean greater risk.

In its initial Measure FF proposal, the fire department planned to roll out its new programs over time, emphasizing the need for a new training center. But elected officials and community members urged the department to focus on priorities for the current fire season.

Beginning this week, the fire department will start hiring staff to write the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, conduct more home inspections and begin further vegetation management, such as clearing low-lying branches or those close to power lines. It plans to hold at least one evacuation drill by the end of the summer.

Before receiving Measure FF funds, the department estimated that it was only able to do 800 of the 8,000 inspections it would like to do each year because of limited staffing and a city-wide hiring freeze during the pandemic. Measure FF will allow it to expand inspections, checking homes for open vents that can let embers inside or high-risk vegetation in yards.

One of the most controversial items in the budget is a “Safe Passages” program, which would keep certain blocks clear for emergency vehicles. The plan could include limiting parking in the Berkeley Hills, either by “red curbing” — painting parts of the curb red — or making it illegal to park in certain locations on high-risk fire days.

A pilot “Safe Passages” program was set to launch in three Berkeley Hills neighborhoods in 2019, but only one neighborhood — Arcade — implemented it. In the San Diego and Alvarado neighborhoods, the program fizzled out, in part after what Sprague described as “significant community discussion” about the lost parking spaces.

David Peattie, board president of the volunteer-run Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network, said he would like to see more money go toward developing the infrastructure for a community response to a disaster.

“A lot of fires can be pretty damn unstoppable, even if you get a great fire department,” Peattie said. “I want to make sure (the fire department) knows that in a disaster, they are going to be overwhelmed, so there needs to be a community-based response in place.”

That’s why the disaster preparedness network is passing out free Go-Kits for seniors and people with disabilities, and why Peattie’s priority is that neighbors are prepared to help neighbors in an emergency.

In addition to wildfire preparedness, Measure FF funds will allow the fire department to hire more staff and provide better training, including for those who respond to Emergency Medical calls, which make up 70% of the department’s calls.

The department also plans to open a training center in a new location. Currently, its West Berkeley training center is on a small lot in a residential neighborhood, limiting its capacity to do night drills and train for certain types of rescues.

Measure FF funds will transform the fire department’s ability to respond to emergencies, Sprague said. “Our department’s going to look completely different in five years.”

The City Council will hold a work session on fire prevention July 20.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.