The big picture
- How dangerous are wildfires this season?
- How at-risk is the urban East Bay to wildland fire?
- What’s the history of wildfires in Berkeley?
- What’s being done to reduce the risk of wildfires in Berkeley?
- What constitutes dangerous activity during fire season and how should I report it?
- Which apps and websites can help me during a wildfire?
- What does a Red Flag Warning mean?
- Why should I preemptively relocate during Extreme Fire Weather and Diablo winds?
- How will I know when to evacuate?
- I’ve been ordered to evacuate. What should I do?
- What should I do if I get trapped during a fire?
- Am I legally required to evacuate? What if I want to protect my home?
- Who will be there to help during and after a wildfire?
- What do wildfires have to do with air pollution? How do distant fires cause pollution in the Bay Area?
- How bad is wildfire smoke for my health?
- I’ve had COVID-19. What do I need to know about wildfire smoke?
- How can I protect myself from wildfire smoke? When do I need to wear a mask or stay indoors?
- Which masks best protect against wildfire smoke?
- How can I reduce the impact of wildfire smoke inside of my home?
- How can I monitor air quality in my neighborhood?
- How do I protect my property against wildfire?
- Do defensible space regulations apply to my property?
- What does it mean to harden my home against fire?
- What help is available if I can’t afford the high costs of fire prevention?
- I rent. What should I know about wildfire safety?
- Should I use sprinklers or hose down my yard or deck during a fire? (No!)
- My fire insurance was canceled. What should I do?
How do I prepare to evacuate my home?
You should read up on Berkeley’s emergency response plan, create your own plan for where to go when it is time to evacuate and know the best routes for leaving your home.
While official evacuation instructions take precedence, you should plan ahead and map out at least two evacuation routes you can take by car and, for those who are able, two routes to take by foot. Berkeley Fire recommends highlighting your routes on the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association map, noting that the foot trails on the map are often the most direct route out of the hills. The paths are steep and many don’t have lighting or handrails, so walk the trails near your home ahead of time and decide whether they will be usable for you and your family during an evacuation.
Scan and upload all of your important documents, photos, and videos to the cloud—including photos of personal property in your home. Consider storing valuables somewhere else during fire season. If you live in a high fire risk area, the best way to ensure important papers, photos, jewelry and other special items are safe in fire season is to keep them in a safe deposit box or at a friend or family member’s house far away. During an evacuation, every second counts, and taking the time to gather valuables could risk your safety and life.
When it’s time to evacuate, grab your emergency supply kit, or “go bag,” which should contain personal documents, cash, a first aid kit and other necessities. More details on go bags and what to put in them are below.
In addition to your go bag, CalFire recommends keeping a sturdy pair of shoes and a flashlight near your bed in case you and your family need to evacuate your home at night.
If time allows and you’re under an evacuation warning — not an order — it’s recommended you take these steps:
- Shut all the windows and doors in your home before you evacuate.
- Remove any curtains or shades and push furniture away from walls.
- Remember to shut off your natural gas at the meter.
- Leave your lights on so firefighters can see your house through the smoke.
- Turn off your air conditioning.
- Move flammable items, especially your propane BBQ, far away from your home. Do the same for things like patio furniture, toys and trash cans — or else move them inside.
- Connect your garden hose to a spigot for firefighters to use, but do not leave water running or turn on your sprinklers.
- Leave out a ladder so that it’s clearly visible to firefighters.
- Turn on your outdoor lights.
- Seal attic vents with pre-cut plywood or commercial seals.
What is a ‘go bag’ and how do I make one?
When you get the order to evacuate, it means now. A “go bag” (also called a “go kit”) is a pre-packed emergency supply kit you can grab quickly as you head out the door, usually a backpack or small duffle bag.
A go bag should contain the supplies necessary to sustain you and your family for a minimum of 72 hours. This is different from a home survival kit, which assumes you’ll be stuck in place without access to water, power or stores.
Prepare one bag for each adult or older child in your household, packing enough supplies for babies and younger kids. If a child is old enough to carry a bag, he or she should have his or her own.
Everything should be as lightweight and portable as possible and in a place that’s easy to remember. You should keep a go bag in the trunk of the car.
Pre-assembled go kits can be purchased on Amazon and at other stores. This may be a helpful solution. The Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Network is passing out free go bags to seniors and people with disabilities.
Many credible sources publish go-bag checklists, and we’ve got one, too. But think beyond the list. What do you need to survive for a few days without guaranteed access to any other source of supplies? The best go bags are personalized.
What should be in my ‘go bag’?
- Water: one gallon per person for three days is ideal.
- Food: a three-day supply of non-perishable protein bars and canned goods (pull tab or pack a small can opener), plus infant formula as needed.
- Lightweight flashlight or headlamp.
- Local map with Berkeley Path Wanderers Association walking paths. Highlight two evacuation routes you can take by car and two by foot.
- First aid kit.
- Back-up cell phone chargers and batteries.
- Lightweight but warm blanket or sleeping bag.
- Essential prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications.
- Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses.
- Copies of important papers, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies, extra credit cards, cash, and car keys, all in a plastic bag.
- Printed list of important phone numbers and email addresses
- N95 or KN95 masks for protection from smoke.
- Change of clothing.
- Personal supplies: sanitary pads or tampons, wipes, diapers, toilet paper, hand sanitizer.
- Diapers and baby wipes, as needed.
- Mess kit with cups and utensils.
- Pet supplies, food, leash and medicines.
- Portable radio or weather radio with back-up or solar batteries.
- Paper and pen.
- Laptop or tablet and charger.
- Puzzle books or small toys for kids.
- Small comfort items such as stuffed animals, blankets or favorite books.
Evacuation tips (time permitting)
- Wear sturdy shoes or boots and thick socks.
- Wear long sleeve shirt, long pants, preferably in cotton or wool in bright colors.
- Wear a dry bandana or cotton mask (keep the N95 in your bag so it doesn’t melt on your face).
- Wear a hat with a brim to fend off embers.
- Have goggles or eye protection.
- Carry leather work gloves.
- Do a quick check on your neighbors to the left, right, front and back.
Make sure your go bag isn’t too heavy to carry, and don’t forget your wallet and cell phone as you head out the door.
How can seniors and people with disabilities prepare for wildfires?
The same basic wildfire prevention steps apply to everyone, such as having a go bag packed. But more vulnerable populations such as people with disabilities or older adults may need additional help.
Issues with mobility, hearing, vision, frailty, and intellectual or developmental disabilities make emergency response and preparedness much more challenging. Taking steps in advance can help and may save lives.
This includes things like bringing a pen and paper in case you need to communicate with someone who doesn’t know sign language or packing a portable air pump for wheelchair tires.
The best preparations, of course, depend on individual needs. This is why personalized planning is critical.
A personalized wildfire emergency plan might include:
- A list of contacts or allies to check on you during Red Flag days, evacuation warnings and evacuation orders.
- Special supplies or equipment for your go bag such as extra hearing aids and batteries; canes or portable walkers; calming/comfort objects or toys if you have anxiety. If you use a wheelchair, you should keep a portable chair accessible for quick-use.
- Clearly written instructions on disability needs covering communication, mobility, eating or feeding, and personal hygiene.
- Alternative places to stay on Red Flag days and especially during Extreme Fire Weather.
The Center on Disability at the nonprofit Oakland-based Public Health Institute publishes an updated, user-friendly guide to emergency preparedness for people with disabilities. It’s relevant for anyone who may need extra assistance in an emergency.
Power outages, planned or emergency, are especially dangerous if you depend on equipment that runs on electricity such as motorized wheelchairs, oxygen generators, elevators, refrigerators for medications and more.
There are resources available to help. Here are a few:
- The Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network gives out free go bags specifically designed for seniors people with disabilities, and caregivers.
- Emergency Power Planning guide from the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, including a comprehensive check-list
- Power Shut-Off Resource Guide from Disability Rights California
- Disability Disaster Access and Resource Center, a program of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers
- Berkeley Emergency Accessible Community Organizations Network (Beacon) helps connect people with disaster preparedness information and resources, covering all types of needs
- Portable Battery Program from PG&E for people dependent on medical devices
- PG&E also has two financial assistance programs for people with medical or other needs, whose lives are at risk from power outages: the Medical Baseline Program and the Vulnerable Customer Program. Both require an application.
In the world of emergency planning, vulnerable populations are referred to as people with access and functional needs. California’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) has a Division of Access and Functional Needs.
Under state law, each county is responsible for an emergency response plan, and it must include these populations. This does not amount to guarantees of assistance. The plans address the roles of different departments and agencies, chains of command and communication.
Even with plans and preparations, many experts believe that if you’re a vulnerable person, the best wildfire safety measure is to seriously consider relocating on Red Flag days, and especially during Extreme Fire Weather.
Additional resources that are helpful:
- California’s Department of Developmental Services oversees services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and publishes emergency preparation tool kits and tip sheets in different languages that cover wildfires and other disasters.
- Ready.Gov, a program of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, has disaster preparedness information on its website covering seniors, kids and people with disabilities, which covers mobility issues, hearing loss, vision loss and sensory challenges.
- The American Red Cross also has guides for emergency preparation for older adults and people with disabilities, covering many key areas including preparing a personal support network, completing a personal assessment, making an emergency plan, evacuation and more.
What if I’m unhoused or know people who are in my area?
In Oakland and Berkeley most homeless encampments, at least the larger ones, are in the flatlands, near freeways or railroad tracks. These areas are far from the high-risk wildfire zones in the hills (although urban fires present their own distinct danger — the number of encampment fires in Oakland has tripled in the last two years).
But people without homes stay, camp or live in many different spots, often seeking hidden places for a lower profile. This can include in neighborhoods with high wildfire risk.
Berkeley’s high-risk hillside fire zones are made up of two zones, called 2 and 3. Credit: City of Berkeley
If you are unhoused, many of the wildfire preparedness and safety measures outlined in this guide still apply. Do what you can in advance to know the threats by signing up for emergency alerts and tracking air quality. Protect yourself from dangerous smoke conditions by carrying and using an N95 or KN95 mask or seeking shelter indoors. If you are camping in an area that is at high risk for wildland fire, strongly consider preemptively relocating if there is a Red Flag warning, especially during Extreme Fire Weather.
While in the hills, avoid potentially dangerous activities like smoking, building a campfire, burning candles, or using gas-powered stoves or lamps. In most cases, these activities are prohibited in parkland due to fire risk, and wildfires have started in encampments in the past.
Greater awareness among the housed community can also help unhoused people stay safe in a wildfire and prevent spread.
Red Flag days and Extreme Fire Weather: If you know unhoused people who are camping or living in the hills on high-risk days, you can share information to help make sure they know the risks.
Evacuation orders or warnings: If you are unhoused and living in a high-risk area, you should be prepared to leave your camp immediately in the event of an emergency situation such as an evacuation order. If you are housed but aware of unhoused people living near you in a high-risk area during an emergency, let first responders take the lead. Call 911 at these times to report unhoused people at imminent risk.
Disaster assistance community organizations such as the Red Cross are often equipped to reach out to people without homes, as are community-based homeless assistance groups. The support they provide can include helping people move from high-risk camps to shelters, transitional housing, and finding permanent housing and services.
211 is Alameda County’s social service helpline, which you can dial to get community information and referrals to local service providers.
Catholic Charities of the East Bay offers a variety of housing services for people experiencing homelessness. Oakland and Berkeley: 510-768-3100.
Homeless Solutions operates a variety of programs and services in Alameda County.
Homeless Action Center offers free drop-in hours for unhoused people seeking legal assistance and help accessing public benefits programs. West Oakland office: 510-695-2260. Berkeley office: 510-540-0878.
How should I prepare to evacuate my pets?
Supplies for your pets — including a week’s supply of food, water and any medications — should be part of your emergency kit. That should also include any crates or carriers to keep your pets from running away during a potentially chaotic scenario.
As you’re readying to evacuate, make sure pets have collars and tags with up-to-date contact information.
Because you may not be home when evacuation orders are given, make arrangements with a trusted neighbor who may be able to swing by your home and pick up your pets.
Most Red Cross evacuation centers cannot accept pets due to health regulations (although certified service animals are allowed). Berkeley Fire says, however, that evacuation centers in the city will have space for pets in kennels.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers free Pet Safety Packs, which include window and door stickers that alert first responders that pets could be inside the home.
The City of Berkeley made a checklist of things to remember when preparing to evacuate with various pets.
Oakland Animal Services also has a pet preparedness guide that features shopping guides for different pet species.
How can I volunteer to help with others’ wildfire needs?
Have some time on your hands and a desire to help? There are several ways you can volunteer to support wildland fire prevention or response.
Help vulnerable neighbors
If you live in a high-risk fire zone and have vulnerable neighbors such as older adults or people with disabilities, check in on their readiness for a fire. Family or friends of vulnerable people in these neighborhoods should do this too. Help them:
- Sign up for alerts (ACAlerts, Nixle).
- Make an evacuation plan (and a plan to relocate on Red Flag days).
- Understand the Zonehaven evacuation system and their zone number.
- Pack a go bag.
- Do yard work for fire prevention.
Before you assist a neighbor, try to first clear it with one of their family members or close contacts so they can vet you. Unfortunately, older adults are often the target of fraud.
Join a Community Neighborhood Response Team
A neighborhood Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is composed of volunteers trained to assist with all kinds of disasters and emergencies. CERT is a program of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, run by local offices of emergency services. For details in your city:
Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Network
The Berkeley Preparedness Network, a nonprofit formed in 2009, is an all-volunteer group dedicated to equitable emergency response for all Berkeley neighborhoods and all individuals living and working in the city. The network runs “Fire Buddy” trainings, gives free emergency kits to seniors and people with disabilities, and produces and shares educational information. Email the network to learn how to join the effort.
Listos California is a statewide campaign run by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to help vulnerable populations prepare for emergencies and disasters including wildfire. It runs many volunteer-based programs.
Alert Wildfire is a consortium of academic institutions that operates a network of pan-tilt-zoom cameras in the western U.S., including many in the Bay Area, which allow fire agencies to spot wildfires early via computer. Trained East Bay residents are helping monitor cameras aimed at Wildcat Canyon, and always looking for volunteers. Check the website for more ways to help with early detection in the East Bay.
Other ways to volunteer
- The American Red Cross also has a longstanding emergency volunteer program.
- The Voluntary Organizations Active in a Disaster (VOAD) is an umbrella organization of local volunteer groups from across the nation.
- Volunteers in Prevention (VIP) are trained by CalFire to assist with fire prevention education and in emergencies. The Bay Area program is based in Santa Clara County. Their phone number is 408-778-8623.
- Like to organize? Consider starting a Firewise Community in Berkeley. Organized under the National Fire Protection Association, certified Firewise sites are all-volunteer groups that work collectively to meet certain fire prevention standards in their community. This includes creating defensible space, hardening homes for fire resistance and providing education and outreach.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a wildfire smoke science project called Smoke Sense. Use an app to help EPA researchers learn what people nationwide know about wildfire smoke and health, and what they’re doing about it.
The Berkeley Wildfire Guide is a collaboration between Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. The guide — first published on July 29, 2021, and last updated on June 7, 2022 — was written by Kate Darby Rauch and Brian Krans, edited by Zac Farber and Jacob Simas, designed by Doug Ng and illustrated by T.L. Simons. You can read a version of the guide tailored for Oakland residents on The Oaklandside.
Information overload can be an issue as you plan for emergencies. That’s why we’ve compared information and vetted sources for you, with the aim of providing only credible and recent information from trusted sources.
Sources used in compiling this guide: CalFire, Berkeley Fire Department, Oakland Fire Department, FEMA, Alameda County Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, National Interagency Fire Center, National Wildfire Coordinating Group, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Centers for Disease Control, Pacific Gas & Electric, East Bay Municipal Utility District, East Bay Regional Park District, California Fire Safe Council, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Community Emergency Alert Teams, State Council on Developmental Disabilities, University of California Cooperative Extension, Oakland Animal Services, Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network, Hills Emergency Forum, Alameda County Office of Emergency Services, Oakland Firesafe Council, Diablo Firesafe Council, FIRESafe Marin, Public Health Institute, California Air Resources Board, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, American Red Cross, Kaiser Permanente, Mask Oakland, Zonehaven, ALERTWildfire, City of Mill Valley, City of Ross.
The image illustrating defensible space in the property section of this guide is adapted from the Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide (publication #SP-20-11) with permission from University of Nevada, Reno Extension and the Living With Fire Program.