Tree debris on a Berkeley sidewalk after recent storms. Credit: Zac Farber

Berkeley residents can request free pickups of flammable vegetation and tree debris to keep their homes safe from wildfire threat under a newly expanded city program.

Schedule an appointment for vegetation pickup starting April 17

The “Chipper Day” program, now operating as part of the city’s Fire Safe Berkeley initiative, will offer rounds of free vegetation pickup anywhere in the city from April to September. (It was previously only available to residents in hillside high-risk fire zones from June to September and was housed under the Department of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront.)

“The potential of a wind-driven wildfire threatens most of the City, not just the hills,” City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley wrote in a memo about the program on Monday.

She added that the city is coming up on the 100th anniversary of the 1923 fire, which leaped from the Berkeley Hills to downtown and consumed over 600 structures in the span of a few hours. About 1,000 people were displaced in the fire.

A map of the 1923 fire that burned from the Berkeley Hills into downtown, left nearly a thousand people without homes and tore through almost 600 structures. Credit: Berkeley Public Library Credit: Berkeley Public Library

The city has sent out annual mailers about the expanded program to 8,500 homes in high-risk fire zones, and additional mailers are going out citywide in the coming days.

Tree debris are processed into wood chips through a recycling program. The goal is to help residents maintain a “defensible space” around their home in the case of a wildfire.

Brendan Devlin, a consultant with the Berkeley Fire Department, said the new program gives residents more opportunities to participate in vegetation management.

In the past, residents in high-risk fire zones would receive a flyer about truck passthroughs twice a year. Now, they can reserve as many as 10 appointments annually through the self-service portal.

But Devlin said it’s important for folks to only use as many appointments as necessary and cancel their reservation if plans change.

“This is not a private on-demand service — this is a public program — and we’re trying to operate this efficiently, intelligently and really partner with the public.” Making a comparison to rules for kids during mealtimes, he said people should “take what you want but eat what you take.”

Berkeley’s new program is modeled after a similar one Devlin led in Marin County. That program completed 3,793 curbside pickups in 2021, and 87% of Marin County residents surveyed cited the program as the reason they removed excess vegetation around their homes.

The chipper trucks used in the Berkeley program have the capacity of about 17 pickup trucks, Devlin said, which is hugely beneficial for traffic congestion in areas with narrow, winding streets like the Berkeley Hills.

The main purpose of the program is to facilitate free pickups in situations where green bins don’t suffice or landscaping services are too pricey for residents, but the city is also working on launching a cost-sharing program for property owners burdened by other expenses related to vegetation management.

Devlin said the process of participating in the new debris-pickup program will also improve community preparedness and strengthen neighborhood communication about fire-prone landscaping — such as flammable eucalyptus and juniper trees — through word of mouth.

“This is for folks who are doing the right thing … but they just say to themselves, ‘Is there a way to make this a little bit easier for us?'” Devlin said. “Instead of having to pay a gardener to come get this removed, the city will come in and provide this service.”

Get ready

Here’s the city’s advice on preparing for a pickup:

Accepted materials:

  • Shrubs, brush, limbs, woody bushes, broom, cypress, eucalyptus, juniper, firewood, etc.
  • Limbs and firewood MUST NOT exceed 8” in diameter.

Not Accepted:

  • Bagged or tied material of any kind. Trash, poison oak, blackberry brambles, construction materials, lumber, regular yard waste, leaves, lawn clippings, bamboo roots, roots with dirt, rocks, or gravel.

Pile Size:

  • Pile must not exceed 25 feet (length) x 4 feet (width) x 4 feet (height).
  • Piles with unpermitted items or any portion of a pile greater than 25 x 4 x 4 feet may be left behind and will become the resident’s responsibility to remove.

Pile Placement:

  • Place piles within five feet of a roadway that the chipper truck can access.
  • Place piles in a location that is not blocking a roadway or driveway and provide a minimum of 10 feet between the pile and a utility pole or fire hydrant.
  • Place piles in an unobstructed location, e.g. – not behind fences, closed gates, or other obstructions.

Correction: The Ecology Center does not participate in the recycling of wood chips.

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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...