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Berkeley Hills Dwellers Ponder 'Pre-Evacuation' as Red Flag Winds Approach

BERKELEY (KPIX) -- Sunday's red flag warning was being called a "20-year wind event" and Berkeley officials were recommending that people living in the hills begin evacuating Saturday.

People living on Panoramic Way in the Berkeley Hills are well aware of the fire danger and how narrow streets would complicate an emergency evacuation. Still the city's warning got everyone's attention.

"This year everybody's aware. Everybody's a little bit on edge," said John Stenzel. He lives right at the corner of a hairpin turn on Panoramic Way that would be challenging for any fire engine to maneuver around, even without a stream of cars trying to flee the area. On Sunday Stenzel was warming up his chain saws in case a tree should fall during an evacuation.

"In case of a really bad fire or if there's downed trees or whatever ... you're not driving out," Stenzel said.

Homes in the Berkeley Hills
Hillside homes in Berkeley. (CBS)

Berkeley has a history of wildfire long before the 1991 Oakland Hills conflagration. In September, 1923, a blaze destroyed more than 50 blocks of the city. The narrow streets in the hills were built in horse-and-buggy days and there is a series of stone staircases in the neighborhoods that could serve as an escape route on foot.

"We have some people who are in wheelchairs or who can't walk very well," Stenzel said. "So, we're trying to identify them and say, 'OK, are there able-bodied people who can get them downstairs if we need to do it on foot?'"

It was for this reason the city recommended that people begin "pre-evacuating" before the dry winds arrive. Sumdau morning, some were getting things ready but, like Elsie Wright, most were staying put.

"I believe right now our community's injected with a lot of fear," Wright said. "My husband and I have decided that we're not going to go along with that. We're going to hope for the best."

Renzo Perez spent the morning removing some old fence boards that suddenly began looking more like wildfire fuel. He and his husband Louis Feuchtbaum were ready to go if necessary but they had their doubts about the "pre-evacuation" warning.

"It takes precaution on all fronts," Feuchtbaum said. "But if you're telling people to get out of here before there's ever a fire danger, at what point do you just become more noise that's not going to be listened to?"

Both men are concerned that, in such a critical fire area, sounding an evacuation alarm before a fire is even burning may be crying wolf. At least they're hoping that's the case.

"I pray that it was a bad idea! I pray that it was totally unnecessary and hysterical," Feuchtbaum laughed. "I don't want it to be: 'wow, those guys were really spot-on because of the danger.'"

As a result of the extreme fire danger, many of the East Bay Regional Parks in the area have been closed to the public.

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