Berkeley has hired consultants to study how an evacuation might work if the city faced a major disaster like a wildfire. State fire marshals, meanwhile, have issued a series of fire safety recommendations for the area around Panoramic Way. Credit: Alex N. Gecan

Berkeley wants to know how you plan to get out of Dodge.

State fire and disaster mandates have broadened in recent years following a spike in deadly and destructive wildfires. Several new regulations call for studies and analysis, but in one Berkeley neighborhood, state fire officials have made specific safety recommendations.

A trio of new state regulations enacted in 2019 and 2020 compelled cities and counties to augment local evacuation planning and local emergency response agencies to study evacuation logistics for a number of contingencies.

To that end, the city hired New York-based KLD Engineering in March for a $400,000, 15-month contract to study how Berkeleyans would evacuate the city.

The city has set up a community evacuation survey, collecting data on how residents commute — by car, public transit or on foot — and how many days a week, as well as how residents plan to evacuate, if necessary.

KLD’s study will analyze three main areas, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley wrote to the council in March when the contract was up for a vote:

  • Primary evacuation routes in terms of capacity, safety and “viability under emergency scenarios”
  • Public safety impacts, if any, from new development of accessory dwelling units and junior accessory dwelling units — and the vehicles that go with them — in parts of the city designated Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone
  • Impacts of new, pending and proposed roadway projects “on evacuation capacity, responder ingress during evacuation and to daily emergency apparatus response times.”

With approximately 30,000 Berkeley residents in a CalFire Very High Fire Danger Severity Zone, “even a partial evacuation will place a substantial number of people and vehicles on the road network,” Williams-Ridley wrote.

With hilly wildland to the east and freeways in the flats to the west, an evacuation for a wildfire, for example, would most likely run from east to west, with emergency workers rolling in the opposite direction.

“Evacuating a large number of people with such a challenging transportation network presents a significant risk,” Williams-Ridley wrote. “If flames or smoke from a wildfire, or down power lines from an earthquake block one or more of these evacuation routes, the risk is exacerbated.”

The survey “gathers critical information from our community about the human element of evacuation. When will people go? How many cars will they take? Who, and what, will they bring?” said Dafina Dailey, a spokesperson for the fire department. “When combined with the roadway analysis, it will help us to establish evacuation time estimates.”

Yet another new state regulation has sent the Office of the State Fire Marshal to review subdivisions with limited access and 30 or more parcels in high-fire-risk areas. In June, the marshal’s office reviewed the neighborhood around Panoramic Way.

The state agency recommended that Berkeley:

  • Create secondary access to the subdivision
  • Install reflective signs for both building addresses and roads
  • Install reflective markers on road edges and other areas of danger that might be obscured when visibility is poor
  • Encourage residents and businesses to keep gates unlocked across possible evacuation routes during red flag warnings and other high-fire conditions
  • Limit on-street parking to keep wider pathways open during red flag warnings and high fire conditions
  • Conduct community-wide evacuation drills

Disaster and Fire Safety Commissioner Harrison Raine wrote that the subdivision “is only one of many in the Berkeley Hills that exhibit similar levels of risk” when the commission reviewed the state survey earlier in August.

While reducing street parking in the neighborhood frees up the roadway for emergency vehicles, it also reduces the number of vehicles available for neighborhood residents to evacuate, Raine told Berkeleyside in a phone interview. “If people don’t have cars to evacuate, and they’re disabled or elderly, that is also a serious evacuation concern,” he said.

Raine took particular notice of the recommendation to engage in evacuation drills. They could proceed without the city undertaking any infrastructure overhaul or changing any parking rules and give residents opportunities to plan how to evacuate, what to pack, and what travel arrangements to make for themselves and less mobile loved ones, he said.

“If we do fire drills in schools, why don’t we do fire drills in communities?” Raine said.

KLD’s contract runs through June 30, 2024, with an option for the city to pay another $100,000 over the following two years, according to a resolution the City Council adopted in March to hire the firm.

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...