This file photo shows Berkeley High graduates Emilio Garcia-James (center) and Diego Rodriguez (right), the Berkeley Fire Department’s first two property inspection interns hired under the city’s Youthworks program. Homes that need vegetation management work may soon qualify for public assistance. Credit: Courtesy of Berkeley Fire Department

The city, UC Berkeley, two counties and two regional agencies are gearing up for nearly $10 million in wildfire prevention and vegetation management work in and around Berkeley.

The city alone is poised to solicit proposals for a $4 million hazardous fire fuel treatment project in residential hillside neighborhoods, with the money coming from Measure FF funds. The project is meant to help residents meet “Zone Zero” defensible space requirements, which mandate 5-foot ember-resistant zones around homes for fire safety in the most wildfire-prone parts of the city.

Fire Chief David Sprague said the Resident Assistant Program, once it is up and running, should “expand the city’s capacity to handle hazardous vegetation removal,” which “is pretty limited right now.”

Wildfire blowing into Berkeley is rare but dangerous “Diablo winds” out of the east and northeast, such as those that fueled the destructive Berkeley Hills fire of 1923 and the lethal Tunnel Fire of 1991, remain a perennial threat in Berkeley, so much so that the fire department recommends some hillside neighborhoods evacuate preemptively during “extreme fire weather,” or prolonged periods of heat and high wind.

For now, the fire department is evaluating “where is fire most likely to start and hit the city based on topography,” with the objective being to generate a buffer area that can both slow fires down and allow the fire department to move in and try to knock down the flames or at least keep them from spreading.

Sprague said a pilot program will involve between 10 and 30 homes to “work all the kinks out of the system,” starting in early 2024 or earlier, and should be able to show the fire department what sort of work they can get done for what price. He said the department is especially eyeing the residential areas east of Grizzly Peak Boulevard.

The city has hired Castro Valley-based Pacheco Landscape Management and is working on a contract with San Anselmo-based World Tree Service to conduct the pilot, Sprague said. A third company, WRA Inc. of San Rafael, will also consult on the pilot program. Those contracts were all below the $50,000 cap, where the administration can enter contracts without council approval. The $4 million price tag for the larger project, however, needed the council to give it the go-ahead, which happened Oct. 10.

The city will assess applicants based on household income, age and “any other kind of mitigating factors that make it difficult for a resident to perform the vegetation removal,” Sprague said. Berkeley Fire Department employees will inspect properties that qualify, contractors will do the actual remediation and the fire department will inspect again once the work is done.

The proposed program will work on low-lying brush and vegetation, or “understory,” as well as “ladder fuel,” or vegetation — living or dead — that can carry flames from the ground into tree canopies, Sprague said.

The Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority runs a similar program in the North Bay, offering grants to qualifying households to manage vegetation, create defensible space or harden their homes. That program also gives priority to seniors and residents with “functional needs,” according to the agency’s website.

Three projects on UC land

Also, UC Berkeley is looking to roll into the first stages of a years-long vegetation management plan in the hills between Berkeley and Oakland.

In the short term, UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have three vegetation management programs it has tentatively scheduled over the next three years. All of the projects are on land owned by the Regents of the University of California.

The three “polygons” in the map show where UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory plan on doing wildfire fuel management work. Credit: Courtesy UC Berkeley Capital Strategies

The first phase is a proposal to clear hazardous trees and other growth from a 100-foot area around Cyclotron Road near the Foothill Parking Lot, as well as some of the nearby hillside, in order to “support evacuation safety” from the lab facility on Cyclotron, according to a description of the proposed project.

The second proposed phase is to thin out trees in a 5-acre swath on the Berkeley Lab campus’s northwestern corner, removing smaller pine and eucalyptus trees, as well as all the eucalyptus within a ravine there, clearing out leaf litter to no more than 4 inches deep and creating more space between the canopies of the remaining trees.

Eucalyptus trees such as these can produce oily firebrands when they ignite and shed large chunks of shaggy bark, creating flammable conditions on forest floors. Credit: Ryan Leib

Eucalyptus trees, which are not native to the area but have proliferated in California since they were introduced in the mid-19th century, pose a particular fire risk since they can produce oily firebrands when ignited and thick peeling bark even when they are not. They and other non-native tree species have grown where there used to be grassland and pastures.

In the third proposed phase near the Lawrence Hall of Science, the university and lab are looking to pull out smaller eucalyptus and pine trees, trim low-hanging branches, chip dead branches and logs and remove roughly a third of the local shrubbery so that redwoods can grow, all to create defensible space around buildings in the area.

 A $2,878,104 Cal Fire grant is funding the work on UC land, said Kyle Gibson, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley Capital Strategies, which oversees campus planning, design, construction and real estate work.

In the long term, the university system aims for broader preventative measures over the accessible three-quarters of its roughly 800 acres of land in the hills — a 1.4-mile fuel break along Claremont Ridge and fire hazard reduction projects in Strawberry Canyon, Claremont Canyon and Frowning Ridge.

This map shows three proposed fire hazard reduction projects near the campus of UC Berkeley. Credit: Courtesy California Courts.

Over the last half-century, UC Berkeley has used a combination of prescribed burns, goat grazing, forest thinning and eucalyptus removal to reduce the threat of wildfire, according to documents prepared for its broader Wildland Vegetative Fuel Management Plan.

While funding is in place for the short-term projects, “We are currently working on funding strategies for the subsequent fuel management activities,” which will also involve additional documentation pursuant to the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA), Gibson said.

The city, university, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, East Bay Municipal Utility District and East Bay Regional Parks District and Hills Emergency Forum are also coordinating a $2.8 million Cal Fire-grant-funded fuel break project along several miles of Grizzly Peak Boulevard designed to make it easier for firefighters and evacuees to move in and out of the area.

As for private landowners in the hills, Sprague said there should be more details on the Resident Assistance Program soon.

“Once the program launches, then we’ll have information on the website that clearly shows which homes are eligible and what’s the plan for adding additional neighborhoods to the program,” Sprague said. “We’ll push information out through the normal channels once the program is launched and we’ll also be doing direct mailers to folks who are approaching eligibility in their neighborhoods.”

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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...