House-to-House Fire Risk Assessments

Berkeley Fire Department

BERKELEY, CA -- The Berkeley Hills area of California is also known as the "hazardous hills" because its hot, dry climate and vegetation puts it at high risk of wildfires.

Firefighters and residents alike remember the 1991 firestorm blamed on dry conditions and high winds that destroyed more than 2,800 homes and killed 25 people in the Oakland--Berkeley Hills area.

To reduce the risk of wildfire, the Berkeley Fire Department applied for and received a 2003 Fire Prevention and Safety grant, which funded a number of fire prevention activities.

The Berkeley Fire Safety Commission held focus groups to identify what fire prevention strategies might be the most helpful. They found most people had the necessary knowledge about fire safety and prevention but hadn't taken action to make their home environments safer. Just because they had the knowledge did not mean that they would take action and make changes. More creative activities were called for to convince people to do more about fire prevention.

One of those activities supported by the grant was house-to-house fire risk assessments. From June to September 2005, five interns went door to door and assessed the risk of fire on more than 8,000 parcels of property in the Berkeley Hills area. The interns assessed the fire risk of properties by making observations about risk factors, such as the amount of combustible vegetation around the house, the type of materials used in roof and building construction, means of access, placement of utilities, and availability of fire protection. The public responded positively to having representatives of the fire department conduct the "walkthroughs" or fire assessments.

In January 2006, the Web site for the home fire risk assessments was launched. Residents can visit this Web site to discover how their properties are rated in terms of fire risk. If a resident makes the changes recommended in their risk assessment, the resident can ask the fire department to reassess their property.

Berkeley Fire Department Deputy Chief David Orth believes the home fire risk assessments and corresponding Web site are likely to have a long-lasting and beneficial effect on fire prevention and safety in the Berkeley Hills. "We'd never had a good analysis on a house by house basis before," says Orth. "The information collected has been revealing. For example, the assessments showed we have fewer houses with wooden roofs than we thought we had."

Computer analysis and modeling of evacuation routes

The grant also supported a geographic information system (GIS) for creating an integrated, three-dimensional "egress network" model. This model enabled the Department to model evacuation routes accommodating large numbers of people with consideration of possible traffic conditions on emergency ingress and egress routes. The data from the home fire risk assessments also helped to create a street-level imager of the Berkeley Hills area, thereby increasing the Department's ability to prepare for emergencies in that area.

Pathway improvements

More than 50 publicly owned paths crisscross the Berkeley Hills area, some of them taking the place of cross-streets. During the 1991 wildfire, one of these pathways was the only route available to firefighters to reach the buildings on Tunnel Road. The grant paid for improvements to several pathways, including two in particular--Upper Glendale and Upper Berryman pathways--that were identified as critical emergency ingress and egress routes. Concrete steps and handrails were built as well as other improvements to make it easier for pedestrians and emergency workers alike to use the pathways.

Fire fuel reduction and fuel chipper programs

The grant boosted efforts to clear out excessive vegetation from public property and along pathways. The fuel chipper programs received extra support through the grant, which allowed the expansion of that service and the elimination of more dry brush and vegetation that could serve as fuel for wildfires.

Outreach and education

The Department collaborated with the Berkeley Fire Safety Commission to develop a fire prevention and safety outreach and education program. Dr. Frank Beall from the Wood Science and Technology program at the University of California visited the community and spent two days walking through neighborhoods and talking to residents about controlling vegetation and making properties safer from wildfire. Many people followed Dr. Beall's suggestions and cut vegetation away from the outer walls of their homes.

The Department also created an educational DVD about the grant-funded program, "Fire Safety in the Hills of Berkeley, California--2005." The DVD contains information that can help other fire departments and communities develop similar fire prevention strategies. It describes the different phases of the program, the planning that was done, the steps taken to implement it, and the results of the different activities.

What they bought with the grant:

  • House-to-house fire risk assessment and Web site program
  • Computer analysis and modeling
  • Pathway improvements
  • Fire fuel reduction and fuel chipper program
  • Outreach and education program
  • DVD production: Fire Safety in the Hills of Berkeley, California--2005
Last updated October 27, 2020