Flames consume a Kentucky Fried Chicken as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018

AP Photo/Noah Berger

Berkeley Rethinks Its Evacuation Strategy That Was Modeled On City Destroyed By Fire

Doug Sovern
December 05, 2018 - 11:41 am

BERKELEY — The town of Paradise had pioneered an innovative, zone-by-zone plan to evacuate its residents in the event of a major wildfire. But the plan was inadequate when tested by the swift Camp Fire on November 8, which burned most of the small city to the ground.

Now, Berkeley officials are taking a second look at their city's Wildfire Evacuation Plan, which was modeled after Paradise’s zone-by-zone approach.

Staggered evacuations are meant to relieve congestion on roads, but may imperil the lives of residents who are told too late to flee. 

“If the same thing happens as Paradise where the winds are blowing really strong and the fire’s going really fast, then you can’t notify people fast enough," said Bob Flasher, a member of Berkeley's Disaster and Fire Safety Commission. "And we have 125,000 people to notify and not 27,000," which was the population of Paradise. 

Berkeley is one of several Bay Area cities — along with Oakland, Orinda, Danville, Los Gatos, Saratoga and Morgan Hill — that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says is at “very high risk” of extreme wildfire. 

The speed with which the Camp Fire spread forced the whole town to evacuate at once. It caused exactly the chaotic mass exodus that the plan was designed to avoid.

The issue is personal for Flasher, who lives in the highest risk zone on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. The firestorm that tore through the Oakland Hills in 1991, killing 25 people and destroying 3,469 homes, is a stark reminder that residents need to be prepared. 

Flasher said that the threat is more severe now than in 1991, partly because of an influx of new residents who don't recognize the danger. 

“You get to have one more month of anxiety now because fire season is so much longer. It turns out one-third of the people that live in the Berkeley and Oakland Hills weren’t here during the 1991 Tunnel Fire and so don’t have that level of anxiety," said Flasher. "They think they’ve moved into a really wonderful neighborhood with a great view of the Bay.”

The zone-by-zone approach still has advocates among Berkeley's officials. 

Keith May, the city’s Assistant Fire Chief of Special Operations, called for retaining the current plan with some adjustments based on the lessons from what went wrong in Paradise. 

“I still think by zones is probably the way to do it," he said. "But early notification, early detection is probably going to play a key part of that.”

Written by Jessica Yi.