Op-ed: Berkeley must restrict parking on narrow streets

It's difficult for emergency vehicles to pass through many of Berkeley's narrow streets. Photos: Bob Flasher
It’s difficult for emergency vehicles to pass through many narrow streets in the Berkeley Hills. Photos: Bob Flasher

The Berkeley Disaster and Fire Safety Commission is working on a proposal to restrict parking on what it describes as “the excessively narrow streets in the hills fire zone.” The commission has suggested this as a result of FEMA recommendations that followed the 1991 Tunnel Fire.

Wildfires have already scorched hundreds of square miles of California, long before the most threatening months of the fire season. Homes and lives have been lost. We need to prepare in advance of life-threatening fires to ensure that loss of life and property in Berkeley will be minimal.

While Berkeley’s fire department has made significant operational and equipment improvements since the 1991 Tunnel Fire, most of the additional neighborhood changes recommended by FEMA and the Hills Emergency Management Forum have yet to be implemented.

One of the most essential changes recommended is to limit parking on excessively narrow, winding streets in the Hills Hazardous Fire Area. These limitations would be crucial to allow 24/7 emergency access, not only during disastrous urban interface fires, but for everyday medical emergency runs.

Limiting street parking to one side of streets would also help ensure the safe evacuation of citizens when required, and it will be required. Twenty-four of the 25 citizens who lost their lives in the 1991 firestorm were trapped in cars on their street, unable to flee due to traffic accidents caused by panicked neighbors who jammed and blocked the narrow roads.

During the recent Wildland Urban Interface Fire Drill in the hills, many of the homes “on fire” were impossible to save due to the time required for engines to back safely down narrow roadways.

The narrow streets have already prevented fire paramedics from reaching homes in time to save lives. Buses have been stuck for hours because of citizens parking on both sides of narrow streets.

To continue to ignore this problem presents an unacceptable threat to life, and that is why Berkeley’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission is proposing that we comply with state Fire Code regulations and restrict parking to one side of the narrowest streets.

The commission has been talking with City Council members and staff, and wants to hear from citizens as well. The three council members, whose districts represent people living in the hills, are planning community meetings to get citizen input and hear creative proposals for solutions to the access and evacuation issue.

This problem isn’t just about people living in the hills. If citizens living below the hills have to evacuate eastward, they will currently be stuck on many narrow, winding streets that will prevent escape. So restricting parking in the hills would benefit all of us.

Come to the meetings to express your point of view on this life-and-death issue. You should soon receive invitations from your council member to do so.

Council members Laurie Capitelli, Susan Wengraf and Lori Droste are holding a community meeting Thursday, Oct. 1, at 7 p.m. at the Northbrae Community Church, 941 The Alameda. The Disaster and Fire Safety Commission can be reached by email at DBrannigan@CityofBerkeley.info. Read more about fire safety on the city website.

Bob Flasher is a retired ranger/ firefighter and current chair of Berkeley's Disaster and Fire Safety Commission.