Is Oakland Prepared for the Next Fire?

Oakland faces many challenges. Violent crime, homelessness, and an affordable housing crisis are all major issues commanding frequent media and political coverage. Fire danger does not regularly demand as much of our attention as these constant threats to livability and quality of life. But we have seen fires  destroy lives and neighborhoods. The wildfires in Northern and Southern California made it clear: fire season is now 365 days a year.

It’s not acceptable to ignore and postpone fire prevention – and Make Oakland Better Now! believes it needs to be a priority and part of the City’s overall holistic community safety plan.

The Oakland Fire Department’s (OFD) official mission is to “provide the highest quality and highest level of courteous and responsive services to the citizens of Oakland.” These services include responding to emergencies, Fire Prevention, and training. OFD has over 500 employees to prevent and respond to emergencies.

The Ghost Ship warehouse fire on December 2, 2016 caused the deaths of 36 young people. The fire in a West Oakland San Pablo Avenue apartment building left four people dead. These incidents make us more aware of the terrible dangers of unsafe building structures – as well as the need for regular inspections and follow-up.

Many Oaklanders, whether they experienced it or not, will also recall the Oakland Hills firestorm of October 20, 1991. This conflagration – considered the most destructive wildfire in California (until the recent Tubbs Fire in Northern California this past October) killed 25 people, injured about 150 others, and destroyed over 3,000 single family homes and apartment buildings. An Oakland newcomer would no longer notice the terrible damage that occurred 27 years ago in Hiller Highlands, Forest Park and Upper Rockridge. The recent Santa Rosa Tubbs Fire, which now appears to have killed at least 43 people, and the Ventura wildfire, which burned 1,063 structures and led to the death of a firefighter, are all fresh in our memory.

We are left to ask – are OFD and the City doing enough to prevent future structural fires and wildfires here in Oakland?

One reality is that almost 80% of the 96,000 emergency calls OFD receives each year relate to medical emergencies. OFD’s 420 sworn firefighters are certified Emergency Medical Technicians and each of OFD’s 25 stations are staffed with paramedics. However, the risk of structural fires and wildfires requires prevention – not just response.

The courts are still deciding who is legally responsible for the Ghost Ship fire deaths, but enough is known to say that the City should have already have in place a more robust inspection system. Buildings like the Ghost Ship warehouse, with very clearly dangerous violations of building codes, should not be allowed to go uninspected year after year. Likewise, the threat wildfire poses to people and property in parts of Oakland merits a constant focus on prevention.

OFD’s Fire Prevention Bureau is responsible for fire safety education, fire-cause determination, inspection of high-hazard occupancies, code enforcement, and vegetation management. The Fire Prevention Bureau is officially budgeted for 11 building inspectors and 4 vegetation inspectors plus one supervising vegetation management inspector. This staff is almost certainly insufficient to properly ensure that Oakland buildings are fire safe and that public and private property is prepared for the next inevitable fire. An April 27 letter from former acting Fire Chief Darin White stated that several fire inspectors lack the required certification requirements for their positions.

We also know many buildings in Oakland are not being regularly inspected. Just recently on Friday, February 23, a large fire erupted at the vacant city-owned Carnegie library building in East Oakland, which has suffered fire in the past.

OFD’s absence of a fireboat is another cause for alarm. Oakland’s Port plays a vital role in the city’s economy, yet there is no water-based protection system. OFD needs a fireboat not just for fighting shipboard fires and doing rescues on the water, but as a line of defense against regional disasters. (A fireboat can be used as a needed supply of water all the way up to the Oakland Hills.)

This Spring, Oakland’s Mayor, administration and City Council will make mid-cycle adjustments to the 2017-2019 budget.  We’ll be watching this process closely and providing our input on a range of issues and responsibilities. But we will push for greater efforts to reduce fire risk and protect Oakland.

This is part one of a three-part series on fire safety in Oakland. (Read part two and part three.) In our next post, we will take a more in-depth look at wildfire danger.

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