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Parks fire prevention plan makes headway

on September 3, 2009

As flames continued to rage elsewhere in the state, a local voter-approved wildfire prevention project for the East Bay hills moved toward implementation in Oakland last night.  In the fifth in a series of six public hearings on the brush-clearing, wood-chopping Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan, three dozen citizens listened without major objection as a draft plan of the project and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) draft were discussed.

Voters in western Alameda and Contra Costa counties originally approved the plan as Measure CC in 2004.  It calls for thinning and removing dense concentrations of inferno-fueling trees, plants, and grasses, according to Brian Wiese, Chief of Planning and Stewardship for the East Bay Regional Park District, the body overseeing the project.

“It’s a plan that protects public safety, public and private property, and also protects the resources in our parklands,” Wiese said at the meeting, which was held at a parks building adjacent to Redwood Regional Park. “It’s inevitable that we will have other wildfires here.  What we want to do is get fuel levels down to a manageable level.”

The Draft Plan, as it is currently called, applies to 19,000 acres in 13 regional parks.

Wise said decreasing fire fuels in parkland and open spaces is important in stopping wildfires before they can spread to residential areas.  In 1991, the brush fire that started above the Caldecott Tunnel, spreading through neighborhoods in the Oakland and Berkeley hills, eventually caused 25 deaths, charred more than 3,000 homes, and caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damages.

Laura Baker, whose home was burned to the ground in the 1991 fire, attended Wednesday’s hearing and said she sees the current hazard management plan as a much-needed step, both locally and for other areas.

“It’s highly important and sets a very impressive model and precedent for other districts making these kinds of plans,” she said.  “The park district is making a very good effort, but the devil’s in the details.  It’s going to take a lot of effort, expertise, and money, and will also require a lot of public oversight.”

Some attendees at the meeting voiced the need for more no-smoking signs, and wondered how the plan can deter the spread of wildfires that originate as house fires.  East Bay Parks Assistant Fire Chief John Swanson responded that in addition to public oversight of the project, individual responsibility is crucial in avoiding a fire like the inferno in which Baker lost her home.  Both Swanson and Wiese stressed that most wildfires are actually caused by human carelessness.

“The work we do is not a substitute for what private landowners should do, like clear brush and hazards adjacent to their own properties,” said Swanson, who also pegged this season’s fire danger as especially high due to the June rains, which promoted heavy grass growth after three consecutive drought years.  “I like to compare what we do to what car seatbelts do,” Swanson said.  “When you get in a car and strap on your seat belt, it doesn’t mean you won’t get in an accident, or if you do, that you won’t get hurt.  But it will minimize the damage done.”

A final public hearing is scheduled for January 2010.  More information, including the full Draft Plan and full Draft EIR, can be found at

Image: East Bay Regional Parks District Assistant Fire Chief John Swanson.

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