Berkeley, Oakland hills safety efforts ramp up as fire season arrives

The Oakland-Berkeley hills in the aftermath of the 1991 Firestorm. Photo: Richard Misrach

As fire season approaches, city and fire officials are ramping up efforts to help residents of high-fire-risk areas in the Berkeley and Oakland hills do everything possible to safeguard their homes.

Both cities are doing, or will soon be doing, inspections preceded by workshops on creating defensible space around residences, along with other efforts. Fire season officially began on May 29.

“Defensible space” refers to creating a buffer between a home and combustible materials such as tree limbs or dried-out grass.

Creating defensible space is one of the most important things homeowners can do to help avoid a recurrence of the devastating 1991 Oakland-Berkeley fire that killed 25 people and destroyed 2,843 single-family homes and 437 apartment and condo units.


Though it was one of the worst blazes in the area’s history, the hills fire wasn’t an anomaly in the fire-prone area. “There was a large fire in 1923 that burned from Wildcat Canyon Road all the way to Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley,” noted Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief David Brannigan.

Inspections in Berkeley’s high-fire-risk area, east of Grizzly Peak and mostly bordered by Wildcat Canyon, will begin June 1 and continue through Aug. 31, Brannigan said. Inspections of the high-risk areas in Berkeley and Oakland became an annual practice after the 1991 fire.

Homeowners will have an opportunity to learn how to prepare for inspection at a June 8 town hall meeting at the Northbrae Community Church. The event is being held by Berkeley Councilwoman Susan Wengraf of District 6 in concert with council members Lori Droste of District 8 and Sophie Hahn of District 5. The first half of the event will be dedicated to fire danger and fire safety issues, the second half to crime.

The results of a recent survey of hills residents regarding parking in the hills will also be discussed. The survey was created by Fire and Disaster Safety Commissioner Victoria Legg and Jessica L’Esperance, a District 6 resident and volunteer.

“When people park on the street, it can obstruct emergency vehicles,” said Anna Avellar, a legislative aide to Wengraf. “Districts 5, 6 and 8 all have streets in different parts of the hills.”

The council members from the three districts are working on solutions to the problems of emergency vehicle access in the high-risk fire zone.

“Evacuation is just about the most important thing,” said Brannigan. “One of the problems with the 1991 hills fire was people blocking roads with their cars, driving out and blocking firefighters.” The deputy fire chief recommended the city’s fire evacuation page as a resource.

After cutting down fire hazards such as tree limbs, homeowners can dispose of them through the city’s Chipper program, which is coordinated by the Department of Public Works, Brannigan said. The program provides services including picking up bagged plant debris placed on the side of the road. The collection schedule, which varies based on location, is on the city website.

While the best fire prevention is no plants near a house, well-watered and healthy plants are less of a hazard. File photo

“One of the challenges in Berkeley is that while state recommendations are for 30-100 feet of defensible space around the homes, the next house is probably 10 feet or so away,” Brannigan said.

With that in mind, “while the best-case scenario is no plants near your house, you can maintain plants and keep them healthy,” Brannigan said. “If it’s well-watered and healthy, it’s less of a hazard. What we get concerned about is brush that’s dried out, pine needles on roofs,” he said.

“Make sure there are no tree branches overhanging your roof, make sure you have well-watered ornamental vegetation and it’s not dried out,” Brannigan said. Additional tips are available on the city website.

Trees should be pruned back

An Oakland fire official echoed Brannigan’s comments.

“People think, ‘I can’t have trees,’ but you can have trees. You just have to prune them back in accordance with defensible space,” said Angela Robinson Pinon, chief of staff to the Oakland fire chief.

Inspections in Oakland’s high-fire-risk zone began May 15 and will continue over a 45-day period, Pinon said. Homeowners in the zone should have received an advance inspection notice with detailed information about defensible space requirements and a checklist to help them get their properties in compliance.

For the first time, Oakland held workshops this year to educate homeowners about the vegetation inspection program. The workshops took place April 10 and 19.

“The meetings were for community members, to show what inspectors look for and how to best prepare yourself to pass,” Pinon said. She added that Oakland homeowners with questions about the program can call 510-238-7388. Pinon also recommended the Wildfire Protection page on the city website.

An Oakland hills homeowner said he was upset after receiving a notice that his home failed inspection, saying the notice wasn’t specific enough about what he needed to do to pass.

“I need them to come out and point out exactly what needs to go, because I don’t get it,” said Chris Wilcox, who lives near the Claremont Hotel. The homeowner said he had passed inspection in previous years, and prepared this year by trimming trees and cutting back ivy.

“It can be confusing, but that’s why they had those educational workshops this year,” said Sue Piper, who chairs the Wildfire Assessment District Citizens Advisory Committee.

The committee is not involved in the inspections, but advises the Oakland hills fire prevention district. Funding from a 2003 parcel tax for such things as goat-grazing on the district’s city-owned properties is expiring June 30, as is the advisory committee.

“There is information in the flyer,” Piper said, referring to the inspection notice. She also recommended the Oakland Fire Safe Council website for guidance.

Oakland firefighters perform the initial inspections, a job for which they receive some training, but which they only do once a year.

“We have 26,000 Oakland properties that need to be inspected, and even doing it this way it takes 30-40 days,” Piper said. The city has only four or five inspectors who do the job on a regular basis, she said.

“If you haven’t passed and you don’t understand what they have said, call the number and ask an inspector to come out and tell you what to do,” Piper said, referring to the 510-238-7388 number.