This is part two of a three-part series on fire safety in Oakland. Read part one here. In this post we’ll examine the history and dangers of wildfires in Oakland.
As discussed in our last post, Oakland’s 1991 wildfire and recent wildfires across the state should make us take the threat of wildfires seriously. We know wildlands in the western United States tend to burn regularly, and wildland ecosystems need fire to maintain themselves. Wildfires are fueled by dry vegetation and wind, and the East Bay’s vegetation is becoming dryer for more days of the year, particularly with the drought, which seems to be returning in 2018. Severe wind conditions may also become more extreme: the 1991 Oakland Hills fire was driven by 65 miles-per-hour winds; the Santa Rosa Coffey Fire is reported to have been fed by winds at speeds over 60 mph.
The Oakland Hills is a wildland urban interface (WUI) – an area “where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire,” as defined by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). A hundred years ago, the Oakland Hills only had a fraction of its current housing density. Oakland’s total 1900 population was about 67,000 people – more than doubling to 150,000 in 1910 after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Now, in 2018, 25,000 people now live in areas near and above Highway 13, where dry vegetation abounds.
In 1993, the Oakland City Council recognized this wildfire risk and instituted a fire prevention district to reduce the vegetation fuel load on City properties in the Oakland hills and to increase related prevention services. Changes in California taxation law in 1997 forced the City to ask property owners to form an assessment district to continue receiving public funding, but voters refused it.
The City from 1997-2003 allocated $1 million per year from the general fund to support vegetation removal. Then in 2004, community volunteers successfully sponsored a Wildfire Prevention Assessment District (WPAD) with the support of 74% of voters. The new district was in place for 10 years from 2004-2014.
The WPAD funding was principally, but not entirely, aimed at City-owned lands, funding:
- Goat grazing on city open space
- Free tree wood chipping and removal services for property owners in the District
- Development of protocols for working in and around protected species
- Installation of fire danger signs
- Purchase of two remote automated weather station (RAWS) computer terminals
- Funding for fuel reduction efforts on city properties in the District
- Community education and outreach
In 2013, a WPAD reenactment ballot measure fell short of the needed two-thirds majority by 67 votes. The City of Oakland must now, once again, fund these critical prevention services from the General Fund until such time as the public agrees to support a new funding source.
The Oakland Firesafe Council (OFSC), led by many of the WPAD volunteer leaders, issued a recent report on the state of current wildfire prevention. This report states that the biggest ongoing issues are: invasive ivy, dead debris, vegetation, and parked cars on narrow streets (blocking easy egress), tree limbs touching structures and/or the ground, and “substantial quantities of fire-prone vegetation on many of the public open space properties that have not been effectively maintained.”
Ken Benson of the OFSC and former WPAD Chair estimates that 40% of Oakland public lands (like street medians and city-owned parcels) would not pass the same inspection standards that the City asks residents to meet. The OFSC and leaders from the former WPAD also believe strongly that OFD suffers from inefficient and insufficient staffing in the Fire Prevention Bureau.
High turnover in inspectors is part of the problem – two positions are part-time and all vegetation management inspectors earn less than regular fire inspectors, so the newly hired seek promotion to higher paying positions as soon as possible.
Dangerous electrical wiring is harder to see than vegetation. One can easily drive through Hiller Highlands, Forest Park, Montclair, Woodminster, or upper Knowland Park to see areas with overgrown vegetation. Each year, OFD’s Fire Prevention Bureau inspects about 26,000 properties for compliance with the California Fire Code relative to vegetation management in the high-fire area of the Oakland hills. OFD inspectors are looking to see if properties have defensible space: if vegetation adjacent to buildings is cut back sufficiently such that the structure is not likely to catch fire from embers if the vegetation starts burning.
OFD states that compliance upon first inspection is less than 50% but increases to 95% upon the 2nd inspection, and thereafter results in a 98% compliance rate. However, this means that approximately 500 homes in high-danger areas continue to have dangerous amounts of dry vegetation year-round.
The difference between the OFSC report and the City’s accounting has to do with the quality of the initial inspections, and enforcement by the forever short-staffed vegetation management inspectors on those who have yet to comply. Furthermore, as stated above, volunteer leaders estimate that 40% of city-owned properties would fail inspections. We have no idea how the city inspects its own properties!
In our next post, part three, we will continue this discussion of wildfire prevention in Oakland.