Opinion: It’s a terrible, terrible fire. We don’t want it to happen here

We are nervous. We know what is happening in the North Bay will happen here and yet there is only so much we can do to protect ourselves from these fires.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “That’s the way it is with a warming climate and dry weather and reducing moisture. These kind of catastrophes have happened, and they’ll continue to happen, and we have to be prepared to do everything we can to mitigate.” — Gov. Jerry Brown (10.12.17 California Politico Playbook)

Wildland Urban Interface fires have been a serious threat to Southern California for decades. Increasingly severe droughts and rising temperatures has noticeably changed the number and severity of wildland urban interface fires in Alaska, in the Pacific NW and in Northern California. In 2015, in 2016 and now in 2017 there has been devastating fires razing nearby communities; only 100 miles north of us in 2015 and now only 40 to 50 miles away. Many of us know someone in the North Bay who has been affected by these fires. Many of us have fond memories of day trips and vacations in Napa and Sonoma counties where some of its landscape is now unrecognizable to us.

For the last 26 years the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, that fortuitously burned in a small area of Berkeley, has been the United States’ costliest wildfire although hardly its biggest. That fire burned only 1520 acres — destroyed 3,280 housing units and took 25 lives. The economic loss is estimated to be $1.5 Billion. It was a fire that was containable within 48 hours or so after starting. The firestorms raging since Sunday, Oct. 7 and still pretty much out of control will surely surpass the devastation wrought by the Oakland Hills fire.

We are nervous. We know what is happening in the North Bay will happen here and yet there is only so much we can do to protect ourselves from these fires. I was driving home after dark the other night and saw a fellow wetting down the area around his house. Although I didn’t think it would be effective, I entirely understood his need to do something. I folded outdoor furniture and laid down as much of it as I could thinking it wouldn’t have much effect but I was hopeful anyway. I remind you, as all the news outlets are doing, to: have a plan, practice aggressive firesafe vegetation management, keep the roads and fire hydrants clear so we can evacuate and first responders can get in to the area. Failing to adopt these fire mitigating strategies will cost lives, shutter businesses and forever alter the landscape of Berkeley.

I think these strategies are extremely important in saving lives and maybe saving our homes. BUT its’ not enough. We have to do more in advocating for our safety.

The streets in Berkeley’s Very High Hazard Fire Zone are very narrow and parking on both sides of the street, on curves, close up to the intersection, facing the opposite direction of traffic flow, and in front of fire hydrants endanger all of us. We need the city to clearly mark where it is safe to park and where it is not. We need the city to enforce these traffic calming and parking control measures, just like they do in other parts of the city. We need the city to incentivize and enforce firesafe vegetation management, building codes and fire codes. We need the city to protect lives in the Very High Hazard Fire Zone and throughout our community by doing what is necessary and appropriate to mitigate the fire risk that the entire city faces.

We need the city to be an active advocate for CPUC funds earmarked for fire mitigation techniques involving pole equipment, fire resistant pole replacement and timely completion of undergrounding utility wires in the Very High Hazard Fire Zone, along with all arterial and collector streets within our city. The city must become an active partner in the currently ongoing CPUC proceedings on Rule 20 funds.

Per an article in SFGate dated Oct. 12, 2017 discussing power lines as a possible cause of the North Bay firestorms and a certain contributor to their spread the author comments, “Lines tangling with branches can spark, so utilities are required to trim or remove nearby trees and bushes. For the standard electrical line running through most neighborhoods, branches must be kept at least 4 feet from the wires and 10 feet from each power pole… An investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission after a 1994 wildfire accused PG&E of diverting money from its tree-trimming program to boost profits, while managers received bonuses for cutting budgets…. PG&E now appears to be spending roughly the same amount of money each year on tree trimming as state regulators have approved.… According to an update PG&E provided to the Public Utilities Commission in April, the company spent more than $198 million in 2016 on “vegetation management”. (SFGate 10.12.17)

The photo shows one example of PG&E’s pole management practice on a narrow street in Berkeley. Not only is vegetation growing close to the wires but the pole itself is prime to fall across the roadway and block traffic in both directions. Another shared concern is how little progress has been made on undergrounding utility wires. PG&E has made it pretty clear this is low priority by not devoting resources to getting the work done with Rule 20 funds, funds we ratepayers provided for undergrounding. Undergrounding District #48, in the Very High Hazard Fire Zone ,has been ready and waiting twenty-five years to get their district undergrounded. One section of the undergrounding district was right up against the early noticed and therefore thankfully small fire that started on Sunday, Oct. 7. The undergrounding district is still waiting and in the intervening years costs keep climbing upwards. This is unacceptable. So is our complacency.

Inform the CPUC of your experience with PG&E on undergrounding, on vegetation management, on pole safety and maintenance, on equipment maintenance, and on power failures. The CPUC is now reviewing Rule 20 and accepting public comment at this time. I urge you to make your opinion known to them and to our city council.

Although Councilwoman Wengraf of District 6, and my council representative, has been tireless in her efforts to address the Berkeley hills fire hazard but any one council member cannot effect the changes we want to see or accomplish as much as they might want to. Council Districts 5, 6 and 8 pretty much cover the Very High Hazard Fire Zone. Our mayor represents all of us. These North Bay fires were stoked by wind carried embers five, six, nine miles due to strong winds. Berkeley Bowl West is only 4.7 miles from Grizzly Peak. Many more embers traveled a mile or two, about the distance from the Lawrence Hall of Science to Shattuck and University. Every resident of every council district is or should be concerned.

We must document and pressure our city council to act responsibly for the safety and well being of our entire community. We must document fire safety hazards and document PG&E’s poor pole safety management practices. Pictures speak volumes and almost everyone has a camera in their pocket. Take a picture, send it to a couple of councilmembers with a quick note. On another day when you see something egregious, take a picture and send it with a note to some other councilmembers. Send notes to the CPUC too. Unfortunately there is no email address but you can write to CPUC, 505 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102. Encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. In time, the city will make it right. In time, the CPUC will make it right. But, we need many more of us to make fire mitigation happen.

Victoria Legg is an active volunteer on the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, the Undergrounding Subcommittee, chair of the CERT Volunteer Advisory Group and the founder and coordinator of a mutual aid alliance made up of nine neighborhood disaster preparation and response groups.