BERKELEY (KPIX) — On June 15, Alameda will be the latest Bay Area county to officially connect to a new wildfire evacuation system called Zonehaven. That’s particularly good news to the city of Berkeley which has a long history of wildfire disasters.
In 1923, someone smoking a cigarette started a fire in a neighborhood north of UC Berkeley that wiped out a three mile, 50-block area in just two hours time. It stood as the city’s worst disaster until 1991, when the Oakland/Berkeley Hills Fire destroyed 3,000 homes and became the most destructive in California history.READ MORE: Downsized But Not Out, Dreamforce Conference Set to Boost Business in San Francisco
A memorial garden overlooks Highway 24 to commemorate the fire. It contains a plaque listing reasons for the fire’s destructiveness, including “lack of coordination among firefighting entities.”
“I do remember a lot of conversation around first responders not being able to communicate. And that was a large portion of the delay in the evacuation,” said Deputy Tya Modeste, Alameda Sheriff’s spokesperson.
It was that experience that, three decades later, has prompted the county to adopt Zonehaven, a disaster response software program that breaks the entire county into numbered zones and then coordinates everything from weather conditions to fire locations to the safest evacuation routes.
“If we can evacuate a certain area in advance of an oncoming fire, that’s less time or congestion of people trying to get out of there,” said Berkeley Asst. Fire Chief Keith May.READ MORE: Flames Reach Ancient Sequoias; Crews in Pitched Battle to Save Giant Forest Grove
That’s especially important in the old hillside neighborhoods in Berkeley with their winding “spaghetti” streets barely wide enough for cars, much less a fire engine.
Chief May says residents will be able to log into Zonehaven using the URL http://www.community.zonehaven.com to see where the fire is heading in real time, allowing them to get out earlier and with a lot less panic.
“In the 1991 fire we saw that a lot,” said May, “traffic jams or people running out on foot, during this active fire — uh, cars catching on fire.”
Zonehaven is already in use in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and it proved its value in the evacuations of thousands of people in last year’s CZU Complex Fires. Alameda County is hoping it will be helpful to them, as well. Not just with helping first responders talk to each other, but also to let the public know when it’s time to get out.
“They don’t even have to wait for, lets say, a news update, because they can follow it and track it,” said Modeste. “And what we realize in these situations is that time equals lives.”MORE NEWS: PG&E Says Light Rain After Long Drought Led to Lights-Out Across Bay Area
Officials say it is essential for residents to register with “AC Alert”, the county’s emergency alert system, to get notifications during a disaster. To sign up for the service, click on www.acalert.org.