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Oakland struggles with compliance in fire-prone hills

The fires in Northern California serve as a sobering and urgent reminder to longtime hills residents unable to shake the fear that another fire could sweep across Oakland


By David DeBolt
East Bay Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — When it comes to properties complying with defensible space requirements designed to limit wildfire dangers, for years Oakland Hills residents have asked themselves a key question.

“Who should I believe, city officials or my own eyes?”

Chimneys of homes destroyed in the Oakland Hills by fire are visible beyond the black, charred trunks of trees also consumed by the firestorm which swept through the area in Oakland, Ca., Oct. 22, 1991. (AP Photo/Olga Shalygin)
Chimneys of homes destroyed in the Oakland Hills by fire are visible beyond the black, charred trunks of trees also consumed by the firestorm which swept through the area in Oakland, Ca., Oct. 22, 1991. (AP Photo/Olga Shalygin)

To answer this, a nonprofit working to reduce the risk of wildfires in Oakland set out this fire season to conduct its own eyeball survey on defensible space — the buffer between building structures and vegetation that can help ignite or spread fires.

The results appeared to bolster concerns of residents: There is a disconnect between the city’s traditional figures of high compliance and “the reality of compliance on both private and public properties.”

The Oakland Firesafe Council’s survey released this month highlighted the historic dangers of the fire-prone Oakland/Berkeley hills, where on Oct. 20, 1991, a devastating conflagration killed 25 people, and injured hundreds more. The inferno destroyed more than 3,000 homes as it raged in the steep, tightly packed streets above Tunnel Road and raced uphill, downhill, every direction, jumping freeways and burning through Hiller Highlands, Broadway Terrace, Upper Rockridge and more before it was brought under control the next day. The fire consumed 790 homes the first hour.

As if the anniversary were not painful enough, multiple fires in the North Bay this month that have killed 42 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes and businesses — 3,000 of them in Santa Rosa alone. That tragedy serves as a sobering and urgent reminder to longtime hills residents unable to shake the fear that another fire could sweep across Oakland.

A recent string of smaller East Bay fires, including one last Sunday near the Oakland Zoo, put 1991 firestorm survivor Sue Piper on edge.

“We’re damn lucky … there was no winds,” said Piper, the president of the Firesafe Council. She has dedicated herself to educating residents about fire dangers since losing her home 26 years ago. “There but for the grace of God, we could be the North Bay again.”

Each fire season, firefighters are assigned to inspect about 21,000 properties, beginning in May with subsequent checks in June, July and October if homes and other land does not comply with defensible space requirements defined by the city.

Crews check for trees that are overgrown or hanging over homes, ivy growing on houses, thick brush in yards or open land and dead vegetation. In recent years, the Oakland Fire Department’s fire prevention bureau reported that 95 percent of properties or higher are in compliance.

But in the first-of-its-kind survey, members of the Firesafe Council got in cars and drove from street to street in District 1, from the Warren Freeway to Grizzly Peak and Broadway Terrace to Claremont Canyon, where many homes burned in the 1991 fire, and District 4 above Montclair, which was mostly spared and therefore remains more heavily wooded.

Those areas made up the now-defunct Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, where hills residents in high fire-prone areas paid to fund vegetation-management efforts until its money ran out and it closed in June, four years after district voters narrowly rejected renewing it.

In District 1, the drive-by survey found one in three private properties and about half of the public properties were out of compliance as of July 31.

In District 4, many streets, including Shepherd Canyon Road and Paso Robles, Balboa and Manzanita drives, showed that between 10 and 15 percent of properties were out of compliance, according to the survey. It was much higher on the 5800 block of Snake Road (33 percent), the 2000 block of Drake Drive (43 percent) and the 5900 block of Zinn Drive (53 percent).

On Wednesday, Piper and her council vice president, Dinah Benson, guided a tour through the winding, narrow streets of District 1, where the 1991 firestorm originated on land above Buckingham Boulevard near Grizzly Peak, and quickly spread by flying embers. Most of the victims were found not far away, trapped as they tried to escape the flames on congested, twisting roads.

On the 7000 block of Norfolk Road, Piper pointed to a grove of Redwood trees hanging over and touching rooftops. To be in compliance, a property needs at least 10 feet of space between the structure and the vegetation. On Buckingham, there were plenty of properties that would have again made the council’s survey list.

They noted that some of the properties identified in the the survey, which has been sent to the Oakland City Council’s Public Safety Committee, either passed inspections when they should not have, or at the time of the survey were still waiting a second or third inspection, which could indicate a shortage in fire staff. Benson believes the staff shortage is the culprit in many cases.

“The fear is the city is telling people properties are safe,” she said. “In fact, the city has left them very vulnerable to fires.”

This year, the vegetation-management unit led by supervisor Vince Crudele had two full-time inspectors and at most two part-timers, according to the city. Crudele did not respond to emails and calls for comment. Neither did fire Marshal Miguel Trujillo.

Training and staffing woes have long been a problem in the hills inspection program. As this newspaper reported last December, obtained emails showed Crudele had complained to Trujillo and others about as many as 28 properties with fire hazards that firefighters had marked compliant, as well as inspection reports completely missing from the system.

Sue Piper, a community activist who lost her home in the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm, talks about lessons learned at the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center off Tunnel Road in the Oakland Hills on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News GroupPiper said firefighters conducted the first round of inspections this fire season and Crudele and his team would respond to properties that haven’t complied.

One example of the department’s struggle to reach every property before the fire season’s end — and the necessity for property owners to be proactive — can be found at Head Royce School, along Lincoln Avenue. For months, neighbors of the 250 homes that surround the private school’s 21 acres of property have complained about overgrown shrubbery and fire danger at the north campus and former Lincoln Child Center on the south.

“The (North Bay fires) were the last straw,” said Leila Moncharsh, who lives nearby. “We can’t keep Head Royce’s dirty little secrets anymore.”

The north campus failed compliance inspections in June and July, fire records show, but a school official on Thursday appeared to blame the city, saying the vacant Lincoln Child Center was never inspected until recently.

“The fact is they never stepped foot on the southern campus until one week ago,” said Jerry Mullaney, director of operations at the school.

Copyright 2017 East Bay Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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