At the height of California’s record-breaking 2020 fire season, crews hauled dozens of tree trunks up to Grizzly Peak Boulevard as part of an unconventional effort to reduce the risk of a catastrophic blaze in the Berkeley and Oakland hills.
The trunks were arranged to block off several turnouts along the boulevard where people had been lighting fireworks and gathering for large parties that summer, which authorities blamed for sparking several small fires in the steep, grassy vegetation nearby.
Two-and-a-half years later, the trunks are still blocking those popular vista points — and officials say there are no plans to remove them any time soon.
Joe Devries, Oakland’s deputy city administrator and the person who has led the turnout-blocking effort, said that’s because they have been effective at deterring large gatherings. (While many think of the area above the Lawrence Hall of Science as the Berkeley Hills, most of Grizzly Peak Boulevard is officially in Oakland.)
And while a drought-busting winter that drenched the hills and even dusted Grizzly Peak with snow has tamped down fire danger for now, the risk will ramp up again as the landscape dries out over the coming summer months. That means the logs will remain a year-round fixture on the boulevard, Devries said.
“We don’t have the resources to remove and place these logs back on a seasonal basis,” he said. “It’s just absolutely not possible.”
Not everyone is convinced the strategy is working. Ben Lerman, a Berkeley resident who regularly drives on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, said he sees plenty of visitors try to squeeze their cars into the turnouts where the barriers now limit parking, forcing pedestrians and cyclists farther into the traffic lanes and limiting visibility. On busy weekend afternoons, he said, “Both sides of the road are completely lined with cars that are parked right up to the edge of the roadway.”
“I see just as many people as I used to see,” Lerman added. “They’re just parked badly now.”
But Devries said he’s heard an overwhelmingly positive response to the program from residents and the local entities that coordinate efforts to address fire risk in the area, including the city of Berkeley, UC Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Park District.
“I don’t see it changing for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Those agencies were faced with what Devries described as a “perfect storm” of problems along the boulevard three summers ago.
With many bars and restaurants shuttered because of the pandemic, outdoor gathering spaces were often flooded with people — Grizzly Peak Boulevard was the scene of big “raves and parties” in 2020, he said, where visitors double- and triple-parked cars on the road, blocking emergency vehicles.
Meanwhile that summer’s extreme fire danger added to the urgency for public officials to address the gatherings, as videos circulated on social media showing people lighting bonfires and fireworks at the turnouts, alarming many residents.
“Everyone agreed we need to do something,” Devries said, and ultimately decided that “what we really need is to shut these things down.”
They used the trunks of eucalyptus trees felled as part of fire-safety efforts on nearby Centennial Drive and in Oakland parks, chaining them together so they would be harder to move. Similar barricades were set up along Skyline Boulevard in the Oakland Hills, where Devries said they’ve helped cut down on illegal dumping.
Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents hillside neighborhoods farther north on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, said she has been happy with the results of Oakland’s turnout-blocking program. With summer on the way, Wengraf said, now is not the time to move the barriers.
“All of this vegetation is going to dry out very, very quickly,” she said. “I’m in favor of keeping them up and doing anything we can to prevent bad behavior.”