The Berkeley Hills are kindling: City takes steps to tackle wildfire danger

Firefighters on road with smoke in the background
Crews on Grizzly Peak fight a fire in August 2017. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

For city officials and many residents, a wildfire igniting in the hills is not a matter of “if” but “when.” Berkeley Fire Chief David Brannigan says wildfires hit every three decades or so “and the conditions haven’t changed” since the last big blaze.

“The Oakland Hills Fire was 30 years ago,” Brannigan said. “We have a heavy, dense dry fuel load that can go off at any time. We have done some measures to reduce the risk but not enough to completely eliminate it.”

A wildfire in the Berkeley Hills would endanger 10-15,000 residents, who would be forced to evacuate down century-old roads towards the firefighters’ defense line on Shattuck Avenue. Brannigan says the area is much like Paradise, CA when it went up in flames in 2018. Helped by 40-knot winds, the Camp Fire in Paradise burned the equivalent of a football field every second.

That’s why Berkeley Vice Mayor Susan Wengraf is taking the unprecedented step of asking the city to prioritize wildfire prevention and safety. Her resolution, which passed the city council Tuesday night without discussion, will ensure the issue is reflected in city planning and “hopefully influence funding priorities in the future,” Wengraf said, “to clear dead vegetation, improve the safety of our pathways, and launch the Safe Passages program.”


“A wildfire was always thought of as a ‘Hills problem,’ but it’s everybody’s problem,” Wengraf said. “If they lose their homes, where are they going to go?”

After years of studies on the hills’ wildfire danger, the issues the city faces aren’t just known, they’re blatantly apparent. The area’s vegetation is like kindling when dried out and there’s lots of it. It needs to be cleared completely, but Brannigan says there hasn’t been enough funding for upkeep.

Compounding the danger in the hills are its curvy, narrow roads. They’re difficult to navigate, especially for today’s emergency vehicles. Also, on many sections of road, a parked vehicle jutting out into the road could prevent an ambulance from reaching its destination.

”Our emergency vehicles have difficulty accessing areas on a daily basis,” said Brannigan.

Along with the studies came plans to address the issues in the hills; some are already in place. This fall the city starts its Safe Passages Program, which creates new fire lanes on blocks identified as being problematic for emergency vehicles.  The program will prohibit cars from parking there, ensuring there’s enough space for an ambulance or fire truck to pass through.

But Wengraf expects resistance to the expansion of no parking zones in the area. Despite the program proceeding slowly on just three streets (Alvarado, Bridge, and Vicente roads) and assurances that the program would maintain “some parking for the neighborhoods,” residents are already warning Wengraf that they plan to fight.

“One woman on Tamalpais told me she’d lay down in the street and block our trucks,” said Wengraf. “Some people think they own the street in front of their houses.”

Another battle is brewing over the plans to clear vegetation. Last month, the Claremont Canyon Conservancy published a wildfire fuel management plan for the University of California, Berkeley. The school received funding to make its campus and the surrounding area safe in the event there’s a wildfire so the conservancy commissioned a plan from Joe McBride, a professor emeritus of landscape architecture and environmental planning. McBride’s been studying the fuel management in the Berkeley Hills since the early ‘70s and has written four reports on the subject.

“Fuel management is a high priority for the area,” said McBride. “Past fires like the 1923 Berkeley Fire started in wildland vegetation and burned into the city.”

The first of McBride’s recommendations in his new plan is to replace the area’s eucalyptus trees and conifers with native vegetation and grass. McBride says trees release more energy during fires than grasses and tree fires are harder for firefighters to control — a claim Brannigan supports. The trees can also fall on roads and block evacuation routes.

“During the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, people died because one-way roads were blocked by trees,” said McBride.

But this plan also reignites the “Great Eucalyptus Debate,” a battle that’s been going on for over a decade between the Claremont Canyon Conservancy and Hills Conservation Network, a collection of local residents who want to keep the trees. Network representative Dan Grassetti said McBride’s new proposal offers “no wildfire risk mitigation benefit” and “is yet another attempt by a small group of native plant fanatics to attempt to influence the University to do their bidding.” Grassetti said the network would be willing to fight this new plan in court.

Grassetti, the president and CEO of the tech company Arboreal Systems, defers to FEMA officials on fuel management. They agree that the tree canopy is good for the area, providing shade and other benefits.

“We’re in better shape than Paradise because we have these forests. It’s wetter. The tall trees catch the fog and they drip water on the floor. That’s inherently safer than not having the overstory,” said Grassetti. “But if CCC gets its way, it will be more like Paradise.”

Brannigan also agrees with the need to keep a tree canopy. His concern is ladder fuels, which are debris on the ground that could send fires up into the trees. He advocates for funding more inspections and maintenance.

“People talk about species but we’re looking at our fire code and that’s about maintaining them,” said Brannigan. “Good maintenance of existing trees will go a long way to prevent the spread of a wildfire.”

One thing that everyone who spoke to Berkeleyside agrees on is that responsibility ultimately falls on the shoulders of residents. While these issues are hashed out, Wengraf, Brannigan and others feel the best plan for residents to stay safe in a wildfire is to be proactive and stay out of the area when fire conditions are at their worst. Residents shouldn’t wait for evacuation orders to leave because by then, it could be too late.

“The idea that the fire department is going to help you during a wildfire is a myth,” said Wengraf.