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Hill Patrol members in action. Hill Patrol members Nick Ross and Dawn Hall wield machetes to clear dry brush. (Carol Hyman photo)

Students patrol hills above campus, check for fire dangers and other hazards

– One campus official says it may be "the hardest student job on campus," a summer stint in which 10 students work in the hills above the University of California, Berkeley, as part of the elite Hill Patrol.

In heavy cotton uniforms that keep out stinging nettles but hold in the summer heat, and heavy boots to protect them from rattlesnakes and poison oak, they patrol parking areas, look for fire hazards, clear brush and help hikers.

"They are the eyes and ears of the wildlands," said Tom Klatt, director of emergency planning and administration for UC Berkeley. "They may have the hardest student job on campus, but I think it's also one of the most rewarding."

The Hill Patrol, part of UC Berkeley's Community Service Officer (CSO) program, recently was spared the budget axe by the University of California Police Department on campus. The program began in 1991 as a response to the Oakland Hills firestorm.

"Right up to the beginning of June, we had contemplated canceling the program," said UC Berkeley Police Capt. Guillermo Beckford. "But we thought outside the box and found funding. Considering there have already been nine fires this year, several of suspicious origin, it is fortuitous that students are up there patrolling."

Seven days a week, a two-person crew leaves campus in a Jeep and heads up the winding roads east of the main campus. This summer's unit of three females and seven males alternate their work in the hills with other CSO duties, including the campus's night escort service to nearby residences, public transportation or parking lots, and patrolling the campus to help prevent crime.

But if you ask the participants, they will immediately tell you that being part of the Hill Patrol is their favorite job. They feel it is an honor to wear the uniform.

"It's a really cool office space," Nick Ross, a junior, said recently as he stood at a turnout on Grizzly Peak Boulevard with fellow patroller Dawn Hall. He and Hall had stopped to check on a car that had pulled over. Fortunately, there was no trouble - just tourists whom Hall offered to photograph with Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco as a backdrop.

A position on the Hill Patrol does not come easy, although this year, because so many Hill Patrol members graduated this spring, there were more coveted slots available than usual. After students are screened, interviewed and accepted, they must complete training above and beyond their CSO preparation. So, in addition to CPR, first aid and police-related training, they must complete four-wheel drive training, as their day takes them to many off-road, remote locations.

Because the UC Berkeley land is so expansive, one team cannot traverse the entire property in one day. Each day, a team maps out the area it plans to cover.

"People have no idea the UC Berkeley property is so vast," said Ross, examining a map of the 1,232 acres that comprise the campus. He and Hall set out in the Jeep, winding their way to the woods, stopping on the way at parking lots to check for any suspicious activity or for someone who may have fallen asleep in a closed car.

"On a hot day, it's really dangerous, so we go through all of the campus parking lots and the lots for the botanical garden and the Lawrence Hall of Science," Hall said. They are available to help a motorist in trouble, and they check for animals that might be getting overheated in cars.

Once up the hill, the Jeep heads down fire roads to make sure they are navigable. When they aren't, the pair jumps out of the vehicle and makes the path passable. Sometimes that means clearing brush with a machete or moving a log with a winch on the front of the truck. If the task is not manageable for the two of them, they record it in a logbook and a larger crew of university staff returns to finish the job.

On almost any given day, such a crew can be found up in the hills, removing large logs and clearing brush. The crew and the Hill Patrol are aided by a herd of goats. With their prodigious appetites, the goats munch away at fire-prone vegetation on a different tract of land every day.

Some days, the crew does not encounter any emergencies, so it spends its time checking gates and clearing growth. While not required to pick up refuse, many days they haul downhill the trash bags they have filled for disposal. Other days may involve pulling motorcycles out of ravines, hacking away at trees that have fallen across trails and roads or being first on the scene at a car accident.

The area they patrol has seen its share of car accidents, and part of their job is to catalog all of the cars that have gone over the side of the road and into ravines. That means a lot of hiking down steep, rocky slopes to gather information. Logs held together with chains have been placed at some of the more frequent run-off sites in an attempt to keep so many from going over the side. While some of the vehicles end up in ravines as a result of accidents, others are stolen cars that have been pushed over.

The teams interact with more than just fallen trees and abandoned cars. They greet hikers and slow the Jeep, which kicks up a lot of dust, to a crawl "when we're around runners and walkers," said Hall. "I hope they understand that we're out here trying to keep them safer."

The Hill Patrol will continue its duty until mid-August, when the fall term begins at UC Berkeley and students return to a full day of classes.

In September, the campus will perform a major clearance of roughly eight acres of eucalyptus in a particularly high ignition-prone grove at the headslope of Claremont Canyon. The grove sits on a low saddle between higher East Bay hills and acts as a natural funnel to direct hot, easterly Diablo winds westward and down through the dense chaparral of Claremont Canyon.