On Sunday, August 25, Berkeley’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) and the Berkeley Fire Department (BFD) conducted their third wildfire evacuation drill. This was preceded by drills on August 4 and 11 of this year, both of which are the first wildfire evacuation drills in Berkeley’s history.
In the past few years, California has lost hundreds of thousands of acres of land due to thousands of wildfires statewide. As a result, Berkeley and other cities in California are organizing to prevent wildfires.
In the aftermath of these disasters, BFD and the OES have made changes regarding Berkeley’s fire safety. Simulating the wildfire evacuations in Berkeley in order to prepare residents for a potential fire is one action that is being taken, as the city has never practiced fire drills before.
According to Keith May, BFD’s Assistant Chief, the BFD’s Fire Prevention Division hired new inspectors at the beginning of 2019. “This helps them inspect more properties, which includes the housing that UC Berkeley students use as well as many new businesses that have opened up in town,” May explained.
More changes regarding Berkeley’s fire safety include the writing of a Wildfire Evacuation Draft Policy, which the OES officers are currently working on.
The OES office has also been training city staff and firefighters to combat a potential wildfire in the immediate area.
Furthermore, May shared that “We have been holding a lot of public outreach activities to let the community know how to prepare for wildfires, how to get information, and how to evacuate during a possible wildfire event.” He also explained how BFD’s Fire Chief, David Brannigan, started a new program called Safe Passages. “It is designed to keep the streets clear of parked cars so that residents can evacuate and allow responding fire apparatuses to access the fires,” May said.
“While we are relatively safe at BHS itself, many of us live in high risk areas, and all of us need to be concerned about the health and safety impacts of wildfire.”
Berkeley City Councilmember Sophie Hahn explained how the city is taking fire safety more seriously than ever before. Berkeley is implementing new initiatives, including “accelerated vegetation management on public and private property and better and more aggressive coordination with neighboring fire departments who are working to reduce fuel loads and improve fire roads.” The BFD is also working on reinstating sirens and diverse warning systems.
Jamie Robertson, a Fire Science teacher at Berkeley High School (BHS), shared that wildfires have become a heavily discussed topic in his class. During the large wildfires in California last year, Robertson decided to include additional analysis and discussion about the fires and their implications in his class. “While we are relatively safe at BHS itself, many of us live in high risk areas, and all of us need to be concerned about the health and safety impacts of wildfire,” Robertson said. “All indications are that an extended wildfire season is the new normal for California … and almost all recent wildfires have been the result of some kind of human activity,” Robertson added.
Starting this school year, BHS’s Fire Science class will incorporate Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) into its curriculum. “Students in Fire Science will receive training in emergency medical operations, light search and rescue, and fire suppression,” Robertson explained.
A goal of this addition to the class is for students to be able to better respond to emergencies at school, because emergency personnel may not always be immediately available. “I would like to see these students incorporated into the school safety plan,” Robertson said.
“The recent California wildfires have provided us with real lessons on what Mother Nature is capable of,” May said. He explained that these lessons have taught Californians how to respond to crises and prevent loss of life as well as property. May hopes that in the future, funding will be available to start more projects that focus specifically on warning and preparing the community for wildfires as they become more prevalent. “I would like to encourage the community to continue to prepare for disasters,” May said, “There are steps the public can take on [its] own … they can make a plan to evacuate by foot or car, sign up for emergency notifications, prepare a ‘go bag’ for each person in your home.”
More information regarding Berkeley and personal fire safety can be found on the BFD’s website.