Fire season is underway: Here’s what’s new in Berkeley this year

“We know we have big challenges ahead,” Berkeley Fire Chief Abe Roman said recently. “We all have to adapt to this new normal.”

Cal Fire fuel reduction work in 2017. Credit: Cal Fire

With fire season already upon us, Berkeley has a range of new programs and efforts underway to ensure the community is ready should disaster strike.

Mark your calendar for June 15: Tune in to a Fire Weather Plan workshop from BFD

State officials have also been spreading the word about how communities can prepare for increasingly dangerous blazes.

“In the past five years, California has experienced not only the largest wildfires in our recorded history, but some of the most destructive,” Chief Daniel Berlant, a deputy director for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said during an event last week that was organized by Sen. Alex Padilla’s office. “In fact, 18 of the 20 most destructive wildfires have occurred since the year 2000.”

Berlant said the 2022 wildfire year is “well underway”: Cal Fire has already responded to 2,300 wildfires, which have burned nearly 11,000 acres.

“The effects of climate change, overgrown forests, prolonged drought as well as increased recreation and housing in wildland areas have all contributed to significant and record-breaking seasons of wildfires year after year,” he said.

On Wednesday, Cal Fire announced awards of nearly $118 million to fund 144 local wildfire prevention projects across the state. That includes nearly $3 million to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the Berkeley Hills to help continue removing vegetation and hazardous trees, such as eucalyptus, which is “expected to reduce the wildland fire threat to over 500 acres” in and around the lab.

In May, the National Weather Service issued three Red Flag Warnings, which denote high fire danger, in Northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Friday. That was the highest number of warnings announced in May in more than a decade.

“We’ve been preparing all winter long on fire prevention activities like fuel breaks and prescribed burns. We are ready,” Berlant said during the Padilla event last week. “But we really need the public to do the same.”

Measure FF has helped Berkeley step up wildfire efforts

The pressing need to prepare locally for high fire danger is what has led Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents much of the Berkeley Hills, to organize an annual fire safety event for more than a decade.

This year, presentations covered a range of updates from the Berkeley Fire Department, a presentation from the state insurance commissioner’s office and advice from an architect about what residents can do to reduce fire risks at home.

“Much of the state is under a Red Flag Warning tonight and tomorrow,” Wengraf said, kicking off the May 19 event. “It really does seem like fire season is upon us.”

Berkeley Fire Chief Abe Roman told attendees that the biggest development for the department this year has been due to Measure FF, an $8.5-million-per-year emergency services parcel tax passed by voters in 2020.

This year, the tax will fund more than $3.5 million in wildfire preparedness efforts alone. As a result, the department has launched a new Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) division and expanded property inspections to all of the homes in Berkeley’s high fire zones.

BFD is also helping neighborhoods build up their own resilience through a national program called Firewise and working to develop a Community Wildfire Protection Plan to determine where to focus efforts first.

“We know we have big challenges ahead,” Roman said. “We will continue to have Diablo winds, which will push fire quickly down the hill. And, on top of that, climate change is definitely here. Our multi-year drought is drying out our plants and vegetation. We all have to adapt to this new normal.”

Property inspections are up, new wildfire plan underway

To help the community adapt, the Berkeley Fire Department is working to develop a new wildfire mitigation roadmap, dubbed the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).

The plan will be tailored to Berkeley’s specific needs and conditions, said Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Chris Pinto.

“It’s going to be our blueprint for hazard mitigation in Berkeley’s very high-severity fire zones, as well as the rest of the city,” said Pinto, who is heading up BFD’s new WUI division.

Pinto retired from BFD in 2011 after 31 years of service to the city. He spent seven of those years at Station 7 in the Berkeley Hills.

If you haven’t yet heard of the wildfire plan, that’s because work just kicked off in May. The nine-month process will be collaborative, Pinto said, with a new online hub set to launch in late July, as well as public meetings in August, September and December before the city’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission.

Read more about vegetation management on the city website

Pinto also described how the city has expanded its hillside inspections by 7,200 parcels this year. Nearly 6,000 of the 8,600 parcels have already passed inspection.

But that does not mean the community can relax, Pinto said: The state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection is expected to release more stringent “zone zero” regulations early next year that will focus on making the first 5 feet around the house an “ember-resistant zone.”

“That’s a critical area that needs to be maintained to prevent the spread of fire to your home,” said Pinto. “We anticipate our compliance rate will drop.”

Fire fuel chipper program kicks off June 6

In July, BFD is going digital with its property inspections, resulting in online inspection reports once new software is up and running. The user-friendly interactive reports will have customized checklists and other resources for residents, Pinto said.

Fire officials reminded meeting attendees about the city’s fire fuel chipper and debris bin programs, designed to help community members dispose of plant materials. Berkeley’s fuel chipper program kicks off today, June 6, and runs through Sept. 23.

Another new program that began in Berkeley this year is called Firewise USA: Neighbors work together to “increase ignition resistance” and reduce wildfire risk in their area.

The one-block Acacia Avenue in the hills has already gotten certified as Firewise; it’s a Berkeley first. Councilmember Wengraf told Berkeleyside that she hopes one day to see all of District 6 in the program.

Want to know more about Firewise? Call BFD at 510-981-5589 or email fire@cityofberkeley.info

“It’s a community-building project working with your neighbors,” Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Kevin Revilla, another BFD veteran and retiree who has returned to help with the city’s expanded wildfire efforts, said at the May meeting. Participants of the program get national recognition for their work, he said.

Perhaps more importantly, they also get “access to funding and cost-sharing programs, insurance discounts with certain insurance carriers, as well as possibly keeping your home insurance from being canceled or not renewed,” Revilla explained.

Connect now (really!) with AC Alert, Zonehaven

Khin Chin, BFD’s emergency services coordinator, closed out the department’s presentation in May by reminding residents about key resources they can use to help them stay safe.

The biggest wildfire risk to Berkeley, he noted, comes during “extreme fire weather,” when conditions are extremely windy or extremely dry. For now, Berkeley sees these conditions for just a few days each year.

“When we do have an extreme fire weather day, that means fires can spread quickly,” Chin said. “The safest place for you to be on a day like that is out of the hills.”

Community members should do everything possible to make it easier to leave home fast when the time comes, Chin said. To that end, the city has compiled a number of tools to help.

Read more about Zonehaven in past Berkeleyside coverage

BFD’s fire weather evacuation page includes a household planning tool, a video series with more detailed guidance and links to two key websites: AC Alert and Zonehaven, which provide information about emergency notifications such as evacuations.

Chin also encouraged attendees to sign up for disaster preparedness training updates via the city’s Community Emergency Response Team. The next opportunity will be a wildfire evacuation workshop later this month, on June 15.

Finally, Chin provided a brief update on Berkeley’s new outdoor siren warning system, which is expected to launch with five pilot sites this summer.

Chin repeatedly emphasized that hillside residents must not wait until wildfire strikes to take action.

“We all know that, for fast-moving fires, with our narrow roads and dense population, that starting an evacuation once the fire ignites may not be enough,” he said.

More wildfire safety resources

Watch the full fire safety meeting below.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.