Doing everything we reasonably can to prevent and mitigate wildfires should be a top priority for the city of Berkeley. The good news is that Measure FF, overwhelmingly passed by the voters in November 2020, provides the funding needed to substantially and immediately reduce the risk. The bad news is that the funds are being used for other, less urgent, purposes and public oversight is lacking.
Measure FF now generates $8.5 million annually with no expiration date. While the measure was drafted expansively to authorize spending for a variety of public safety purposes, wildfire prevention and preparedness was ranked as the most important in a city-sponsored community survey, and with good reason.
The 1991 Berkeley-Oakland Tunnel Fire still ranks as the third most-destructive wildfire in California history. In the years since, wildfires have grown more prolific and intense, as heat, dryness and stronger winds associated with climate change have led to more and stronger fires. Berkeley’s previous fire chief, David Brannigan, stated publicly that a wildfire starting in the hills “could burn all the way to the bay.”
And yet, to date, most of Measure FF funds, as well as the city’s attention, have been devoted to purchasing more and better ambulances, acquiring a firefighting training facility in Richmond, and purchasing an outdoor warning system. To be sure, these are worthy expenditures, but these things will do nothing to prevent another wildfire catastrophe. Once we have substantially reduced our vulnerability to wildfire, we can dedicate FF funds to other important, but less pressing needs.
To that end, the city’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission has made specific recommendations to prioritize the immediate removal of tons of hazardous, fire-prone vegetation in the high-fire zones, and to step up the city’s efforts to improve the ability to evacuate from high-risk areas, such as by refreshing faded parking-restriction signs and addressing evacuation pinch points. These crucial mitigation efforts could be accomplished with less than a year of FF revenue.
But the city council has yet to consider these commission recommendations. While the commission is the designated oversight body for Measure FF funds, it has not been provided with any plans for use of the funds, despite formal requests. Nor has it been provided with any detailed budget information through two budget cycles.
The city has used a portion of Measure FF funds to bolster the fire department’s inspection program, nudging residents to create “defensible space” around their homes. Residents are being educated and encouraged to mitigate risks around their homes, including through neighborhood FireWise groups. The city has also just launched the development of its Community Wildfire Protection Plan, albeit years later than other Bay Area jurisdictions.
But these measures are no match for the threat we face. We should begin to immediately address the largest mitigatable hazards that are consistently identified as priorities in other Bay Area plans. Carol Rice, a wildfire expert hired to draft UC Berkeley’s plan, for example, has written that preventing a crown fire in eucalyptus in the Berkeley/Oakland hills “is of paramount importance to the fire safety of a very large population.” We have the funds to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, that risk within a few years.
Only aggressive city-run programs can materially reduce the chances and impacts of a wildfire, and sufficiently reduce risk to enable insurers to provide residential fire coverage. If we are serious about these goals, the city should prioritize Measure FF funds accordingly, as was the hope of those that voted to entrust the city with these resources.
Nancy Rader serves on the city of Berkeley’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission.