Most houses in the Berkeley Hills don’t comply with Zone 0, an “ember-resistant” defensible space zone extending 5 feet out from the base of structures.
Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ CatchLight

In the middle of back-to-back rainstorms, it’s hard to think about wildfire prevention.

But in a matter of months, we’ll be thick in bountiful grasses and other vegetation, fed by today’s rains. And weeks after, much of this will turn dry and brown — prime wildfire fuel.

The public has another chance on Wednesday, Dec. 7, to weigh in on city efforts to reduce wildfire risks in a public meeting on Berkeley’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). Wednesday’s meeting, a chance to provide input and hear updates, is the third since planning started.

The plan, launched in September and currently in the development stage, is a collaboration of various city departments aiming to develop effective strategies for fighting and preventing wildlife. The fire department is the lead agency.

In addition to collecting input through community meetings, online surveys are part of the planning process. The latest (third) survey is up now, with responses due Dec. 31. 

The plan considers risks from wildfire to all areas of the city, but is primarily focused on areas with the most severe wildfire hazard, Berkeley’s fire zones 2 and 3, located in the hills and close to open space.

Most of these areas are in the state’s highest fire hazard zones, and subject to state laws on wildfire prevention such as creating defensible space around structures. Local wildfire laws can be stricter, but not weaker than state law.

The city council was updated earlier this fall on the plan’s progress. Highlights include:

  • Changes to the city fire code to align it with state requirements for maintaining defensible space in the city’s most severe risk zones. State law requires defensible space from the base of structures in severe fire zones, extending out 100 feet, with progressive vegetation spacing and thinning. This includes the newly added Zone 0, extending 5 feet out from the base of structures. Details on Zone 0, also called an ember resistant zone, requirements are due from the state over the next few months, but CalFire already recommends minimal vegetation. Zone 0 requirements go into effect for new construction in 2023, and for existing construction a year later.
  • The city’s amended fire codes will also specify that defensible space is required regardless of property lines, which can mean neighbors must work with neighbors, or the city will step in. “Since fire will not recognize a property line and stop spreading, we must ensure that we are following the science, which clearly indicates for graduated treatment of vegetation with more intense treatment closer to a home,” Deputy Fire Chief David Sprague explained to Berkeleyside. “This will require neighbors in Zone 2 and 3 to work together to ensure there is 100’ of treated vegetation in compliance with the State and Local Fire Code. The Department plans to provide a number of resources to help make these regulations clear through the coming year.”
  • Need for more staff for vegetation management and defensive space enforcement.
  • An evaluation of the city’s chipping pilot program, which provides free wood (branches, trunks) chipping in the highest severity wildfire neighborhoods, with the goal of making the program more impactful in increasing defensible space compliance.
  • Exploring developing a public/private cost sharing program to help property owners maintain defensible space and harden or protect their homes against fire.  “The two most significant barriers to voluntary homeowner compliance are selecting contractors and financing the work. These are the two primary problems this program is being designed to address,” the staff report says.
  • Streamlining the city’s hazardous vegetation inspection, citation, and abatement process so it is “fair, efficient, and effective.”
  • Increasing vegetation management or thinning and cutting on public lands including at Remillard Park.
  • Ramping up implementation of the Safe Passages Program, a stalled idea from the city’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission for improving emergency evacuation as well as emergency vehicle access in hilly neighborhoods with winding, narrow streets. This includes getting quotes for repainting red curbs and replacing worn parking signs and working with the Mills College School of Business in creating a public process to help neighbors prepare for unpopular elements of the program such as restricting parking. “The Mills College opportunity is new and we are looking forward to working with them to find the best path forward to help the community through the more controversial parts of this program,” Sprague said.
  • City has purchased a mobile 3,000-gallon water truck for enhanced fire response.
  • Contracting with a consultant on an evacuation time study, to better understand movement flows and impediments to emergency evacuations. “This analyzation [sic] will help us understand the street capacities, safety, and viability under a range of emergency scenarios. It will vet the preliminary mapping of evacuation routes and provide recommendations to improve their safety and capacity,” Sprague said.

Many plan actions are funded by Measure FF, an $8.5 million emergency response and preparedness parcel tax passed by voters in 2020 that specifically earmarked money to address wildland fire risks. But the fire department  is seeking funding for other plan goals, either from city coffers and/or grants.

In this vein, the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission will ask the City Council at a Dec. 14 meeting for 23% of Measure FF’s $8.5 million funding in 2023 and 26% of its 2024 funding for the expanded defensible space home inspection program identified by the community wildfire planning process.

The money would go toward the city removing hazardous vegetation in Berkeley’s highest severity fire zones, with buy-in from property owners, or when they don’t comply. 

“The program would provide for City vegetation management crews to clear vegetation where property owners opt into the program or fail to comply, with no-interest liens placed upon properties to recover direct costs upon transfer. Special emphasis should be placed on eucalyptus groves due to their high flammability and potential to create spot fires,” the commission’s report to the council says. 

Details on previous meetings and surveys are available on the plan’s website.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years, and also happens to live in Berkeley, near downtown. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from...