City leaders commemorated the 31st anniversary of the 1991 Oakland/Berkeley Firestorm at a press conference Tuesday, urging constituents to pass Measure L, which would relocate utilities underground along evacuation routes, according to a press release from Maxwell Szabo, founder of Szabo and Associates.
Measure L, which constituents will vote on in November, is a general obligation bond for $650 million, $50 million of which would be allocated to bury electrical utilities underground along evacuation routes, said District 6 Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents the northeast Berkeley Hills.
“It’s not a question of if, but when, the next major wildfire will threaten the City of Berkeley,” said City Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email. “With Measure L, we can make the city safer and more resilient in the face of worsening wildfires and disasters.”
The 1991 firestorm killed 25 people, most of whom died trying to escape, and cost $1.5 billion in damages, which would be $2.59 billion today, according to the press release. Wengraf added that a 1923 fire destroyed 600 homes in the Berkeley Hills, where dense vegetation, steep hills and narrow roads pose a significant fire hazard that has only increased over the past century.
According to Wengraf, 99% of wildfires could be avoided with underground electrical wires.
“(Measure L) is critical for the safety of people who live in the hills,” Wengraf said. “Undergrounding utility wires and poles assures safe passage on those evacuation routes.”
Wengraf added that there is insufficient road capacity to handle the volume of people who would attempt to evacuate the hills in the event of a fire.
Additionally, fallen poles or wires could prevent first responders from reaching people in need, Wengraf said.
“Residents must have safe passage to leave the hills for safety, and first responders and firefighters must have clear access to get uphill and respond to emergencies,” Robinson said in the email.
In addition to the $50 million for “undergrounding” utilities, Measure L allocates $200 million for affordable housing, $300 million for street paving and bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements and $100 million for infrastructure related to climate change issues, Wengraf said.
The press conference included Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Councilmembers Sophie Hahn, Terry Taplin, Wengraf and Robinson, as well as Berkeley firefighters, according to Tom Clifford, campaign spokesperson for Measure L. Margaretta Mitchell, a survivor of the 1991 fire, was also in attendance.
“31 years ago the sky was bright orange and the smoke was so thick it was nearly impossible to navigate your way to safety,” Mitchell said in the press release. “We simply can’t let this happen again.”