A man looks up at the orange sky on the UC campus at 9:05 a.m. September 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Climate change has been driving temperatures up across the West Coast, intensifying heat waves and creating more destructive wildfires. While Berkeley is insulated from some of the harshest impacts due to its geography, residents who live or work outside are still vulnerable to the worsening conditions.

Berkeley has one official cooling and clean air center offering people respite from dangerous temperatures and smoky air. Public libraries also offer respite from poor weather conditions. 

The emergency shelter is located at the old Berkeley City Hall (2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way), and the city will “start considering” activating it if temperatures reach 90 degrees or when there is a sustained unhealthy air quality index of more than 150, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

The city uses the National Weather Service forecast in South Berkeley — which predicts the average temperature of a 1.5-by-1.5 mile square in the flats — to determine when to open.

The activation triggers, however, are “not hard and fast” and “constantly evolving based on our experiences from activating these centers.” 

“Because unhoused community members are directly exposed to weather and air quality challenges, we use pretty low thresholds to monitor the situation and start considering activation of additional services targeted to them,” Chakko said.

He added that the city has generally seen little to no turnout when the city has activated the centers. Because they are targeted at people without housing, the city primarily does outreach through homeless service providers.

UC Berkeley and the city also recently opened the Sacred Rest daytime drop-in shelter with Village of Love on Haste Street in Southside Berkeley. It’s outdoors, so it won’t be able to provide weather respite, but there are resources like food and water available at the location.

The city hasn’t activated the emergency shelter for cooling or clean air respite this year, according to Chakko. It was last activated as a cooling center in June 2021, when temperatures hit the low 90s in Berkeley. At that time, there were also several wildfires ongoing in Utah that impacted air quality.

In September 2021, Berkeley and the surrounding region experienced the infamous “orange sky day” amid a disastrous fire season in California — the largest recorded in the state’s history, burning 4% of the state’s entirety and crowned by the million-acre August Complex fire.

Berkeley’s proximity to the San Francisco Bay’s coastal wind and marine layer means its flatlands are often partially protected from heat events like those expected this weekend, but the natural air-conditioning it gets from the bay is slowly being cranked down

The 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm is still on the minds of many Berkeley residents who lived through it, though there haven’t been any large conflagrations locally in recent years.

To stay up to date on hazardous weather conditions, subscribe to emergency notifications from Alameda County.

The county also has services in addition to the city’s emergency shelter and daytime drop-in locations (which are separate from the coordinated entry process for homeless residents who are seeking shelter). A list of “environmental impact centers” is available on the county’s website, and a list of Oakland cooling centers is available on The Oaklandside.

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...