— By Keri Troutman
Wildfire season in California is expanding, and right now we are at the height of it. Wildfire is one of the top emergency scenarios Berkeley Lab prepares for, and like all emergency preparedness situations, there’s a role for employees as well. The more informed we all are, the more prepared the Lab is overall.
Wind direction is something that keeps Berkeley Lab Fire Marshal Todd LaBerge awake at night. He knows that a shift in wind speed or direction can make the difference between a small grass fire and a catastrophic wildfire event. “Luck was on our side last summer when that August 2 grass fire broke out on Grizzly Peak Road,” says LaBerge. “The wind was favorable, we had time to evacuate the Lab safely, and the fire was contained pretty quickly.”
This convergence of factors is not something we can count on. Having time to safely evacuate in the face of a wildfire isn’t a given, LaBerge says. “If 50-60 mph winds are blowing a Tilden Park wildfire west toward the Bay, we’d have 30 seconds to get out,” says LaBerge. “You’d still be looking for your keys and the firewall would have come past you.”
With so many variables, there is no one-size-fits-all plan of action, says LaBerge. Instead, he stresses being prepared and understanding what the Lab has set in place to prepare and protect employees. “Evacuating may be the first thing that comes to mind in the event of a fire,” says LaBerge. “But given our location and variabilities in wind speed and direction, it’s very likely that staying put would be a safer idea.”
Tonya Petty, Emergency Manager at Berkeley Lab, stresses that her team is constantly monitoring wildfire risk factors and conditions. “Whether personnel are expected to go to a safer building for shelter or have time to safely evacuate, Emergency Management will inform employees,” says Petty. “That’s why it is so important to be signed up for LabAlert—that’s how we will get our messaging out to employees.” All employees are automatically signed up for LabAlert with their Lab email and desk phones, but employees must “opt in” to get LabAlert texts on their cell phones. Current LabAlert opt in numbers are around 2500—Petty would like to see that number at least doubled.
“If cell service and/or power is compromised, we would turn to the 400-strong Building Emergency Team (BET) members at the Lab,” Petty says. Each Berkeley Lab division has trained employees who serve as BETs for all buildings in which they occupy space; BET members help organize and lead building safety drills and participate in safety communications. “The BET will receive information and direction from the Lab’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) via radio and also provide critical information to the EOC of what is happening in the field. Radios will be one of the most reliable forms of communication to receive instructions about the safest course of action.”
Together, the Lab’s Fire Protection and Emergency Management groups have developed a plan for safe on-site sheltering in the event of a fast-moving wildfire at the Lab. Using data from multiple building engineering studies, Protective Services has created a map of 18 Safety Areas For Emergencies (SAFE) buildings. Each Lab zone has at least one designated SAFE building—Petty and LaBerge encourage everyone to know the location of these SAFE buildings before an emergency occurs.
All Berkeley Lab buildings have class A fire-safe roofs and fire sprinklers. The SAFE buildings that Protective Services has designated in each zone are also those with the most fire-resistant construction and advanced HVAC controls. Lab firefighters (there are four on site at all times) have access to 600,000 gallons of water in tanks on site and more than 4 million gallons of water through the East Bay Municipal Utility District.
“It may be absolutely frightening to be in a building as a fire passes outside—it’s going to be hot and it’s going to be smoky—but you’re going to survive because it is safer to be inside a sprinklered building than outside in the midst of a fire,” says LaBerge. He adds that most of the people who died in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire were in their cars trying to evacuate.
“If it is safe to evacuate the Lab, or a portion of the Lab, we will certainly do so,” says LaBerge. If it’s a better idea to stay put or go to a SAFE building, emergency personnel will inform employees, says LaBerge.
Given Berkeley Lab’s setting in a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI)—an environment where structures and wildland areas interact—it is imperative that employees are aware of wildfire potential and safety protocol. Many Berkeley Lab employees also live in a WUI environment, so being prepared at work and at home is doubly important, says LaBerge.
Being prepared includes knowing what to do in the case of a suspected wildfire situation—Petty stresses steps employees should follow if they suspect a wildland fire:
- Evaluate and recognize your surroundings.
- Report any incidents to 6999 or emergencies to 911.
- Know your zone and know where SAFE buildings are.
- Follow instructions from LabAlert, BETs, the PA system, and first responders.
- Be ready to evacuate if and when directed.
In California, the definition of “fire season” is expanding—wildfires are starting earlier in the year and lasting longer. Some of the worst 2017 California wildfires occurred between October and December, so the risk is still extremely high for a few more months, LaBerge says. More than 1.4 million acres have burned throughout California this year already. LaBerge points out that since 1923 there have been 13 occasions where Diablo winds have pushed fires down through the East Bay hills. “The last time it happened was 27 years ago,” he says. “We’re overdue—it is no longer an ‘if’ scenario.”
Wildfire Safety Resources