It was October 1991, and dark smoke and ashes billowed overhead. Berkeley resident Doug Kidder, then a recent Cal grad, had gone to visit a friend’s home on Tunnel Road, at the edge of the blazing inferno that was the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm.
The friend’s home was spared; nearly 3,500 others’ were not. But memory fades, as does fear. “Tragedies like that, we all kind of worry about it for a bit and get on with our lives,” Kidder said. “That’s very much what I did.”
At least until a few years ago, when Kidder became cycling buddies with Berkeley native Dave Winnacker, fire chief of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District. Their sunrise bike rides through the Berkeley Hills became a rolling class in fire danger, with Winnacker pointing out the conflagration risk of the uncut ground fuels and dead brush they rode past in Wildcat Canyon.
When their conversation turned to solutions, Winnacker urged him to look into the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise program. Firewise provides guidance and resources to neighbors who band together on projects, such as fire-proofing homes and clearing vegetation along evacuation routes, that can reduce the danger posed by wildfires.
In 2019, Kidder, a business consultant, and his wife, Allison, an academic whose doctoral research was in drought adaptation, decided to see if their Cragmont neighbors would be interested in joining them in forming a Firewise community.
They thought the program’s benefits would be obvious.
Climate change is making catastrophic fires more likely, and people living in high-risk fire zones are increasingly feeling the heat to create defensible space around their homes. This year, for the first time, Berkeley inspected every hillside property, and a 5-foot ember-resistant zone around all structures in the hills will soon be required by law.
Firewise is the carrot to match the stick of inspections, reflecting how reducing the risk of fire for the house next door is also a way to protect your own home and prompting residents to forge positive, productive relationships with their local fire service long before disaster strikes.
To form a Firewise community in Berkeley, it just takes a pledge from members to do a minimum amount of volunteer fire prevention work each year (it can average to as little as an hour per household) in accordance with a three-year plan designed for the community by Berkeley Fire and then reviewed and approved by Cal Fire and the NFPA.
Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose district covers much of the Berkeley Hills, said she hopes all of her constituents will join the program.
“Getting to know your neighbors is probably the most important thing in terms of how to deal with any catastrophe,” she said. It’s “almost a Quaker idea, where everybody helps everybody else and does the work that needs to get done.”
People in Firewise communities are five times more likely to get access to grants or other types of fire prevention funding, according to the NFPA. Plus, the USAA, the California Automobile Insurance Company and State Farm each offer discounts to customers living in recognized Firewise communities — a major advantage as homes in high-risk neighborhoods become more expensive and difficult to insure. Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Kevin Revilla has stressed the potential of Firewise to keep residents’ home insurance from being canceled or not renewed.
When the Kidders started trying to form a Firewise community, they found it wasn’t such an easy sell.
Doug Kidder made a speech at the Cragmont Neighborhood Association but got little response from attendees. One neighbor declined because he felt there was “too much government intervention in our lives.” Others said they simply weren’t interested.
“I was actually surprised, because being a member of a Firewise community doesn’t impose tremendous costs on the individual homeowners,” Kidder said. “I thought there was going to be much more general acceptance and understanding of this.”
But the Kidders persevered, knocking on doors and making their case face to face.
And on April 29, they started Berkeley’s first Firewise community. The Acacia neighborhood, consisting of just 14 households, held its first meeting on May 17 at the Kidders’ home on Acacia Avenue.
The group has yet to plan a neighborhood-wide cleanup event (mostly because many families are out on vacation until September), but the neighborhood’s 2022 to-do list includes removing flammable materials from under decks and porches, replacing vinyl gutters and wood fences, and repairing loose or missing shingles to prevent ember penetration.
Berkeley Fire has promised to help the group conduct evacuation drills and map out evacuation routes. Next year, the Acacia community will work together to remove vegetation from commonly owned areas, including footpaths marked for evacuation, like Acacia Walk and Halkin Walk, and conduct an education campaign about emergency go-bags. In 2024, they plan to hold a community fuel reduction day and rent a dumpster.
The Kidders’ group is among the smallest of California’s 552 Firewise communities (a community can be made up of anywhere from eight to 2,500 households) and one of just two in Alameda County. Three more communities are currently in the process of forming in Berkeley.
“The work done on an individual parcel is helpful, but it’s when done at a community scale that fundamentally changes wildfire risk,” Winnacker said. “The hope is that these lily pads start to overlap, and eventually, rather than just Acacia sitting in isolation … you start to see swaths of the hills move.”
The Kidders are waiting for most of their neighbors to return home so that the cleanup work and evacuation drills can begin. In the meantime, they’re hard at work, redoing parts of their yard, replacing bushes with California native plants.
And devoted cycling buddies Doug Kidder and Winnacker continue their 5:30 a.m. bike rides through the Berkeley Hills, each holding the other accountable.
“Having a reliable partner means I will certainly get out of bed for that ride knowing that someone is waiting for me,” Winnacker said.