Twenty five years after Carolyn Burgess searched through the ashes of her house by hand after surviving the devastating 1991 firestorm in the Oakland Hills, her neighborhood is taking another step to remain safe. The City of Oakland is planning to launch an accessible road project for emergency vehicles and a new vegetation management plan to restrain the growth of plants that fuel fires. But Burgess, as well as many other residents, still feels “so vulnerable to wildfire.”
According to Councilmember Dan Kalb of District 1, the emergency vehicle access project is to maintain and improve unobstructed access to emergency routes. It will also pilot parking enforcement in several areas which are identified as the most dangerous to make sure roads remain open to traffic.
“Councilmember [Annie] Campbell Washington, from District 4, and I have heard from enough people who lived in the hills that they are worried about another fire,” Kalb said. “Wildfire is going to happen, and we have either to prevent the fire or control the fire once it starts.”
Road clearance, especially for those narrow winding hill streets built over a hundred years ago, is essential for public safety during emergency situations. It can help people escape and emergency vehicles like fire trucks or ambulances get in. “We have learned lessons from the 1991 firestorm,” Kalb said. Of the 25 people who died in the 1991 firestorm, 16 lost their lives on a narrow street because a car broke down and blocked the only exit route.
An online survey from last year started by Kalb and Washington further confirmed the potential hazards. The questionnaire collected residents’ opinions on whether they feel the streets are too narrow and which areas they feel have this problem. “It was evident that it is an issue of high concern,” Kalb said.
According to Miguel Trujillo, fire marshal for the Oakland Fire Department, streets need to be at least 11 to 12 feet wide for a normal fire truck with a 10-foot engine to navigate. “When people park on the narrow streets, the roads get blocked and that becomes really dangerous,” he said. Even without cars parking, some of the streets built a long time ago are less than 10 feet wide. “For these streets, there’s nothing you could do about it. So besides parking enforcement, we’re also locating best routes to avoid those streets and arrive as soon as possible,” he said.
Susan Piper, president of the Oakland Firesafe Council, pointed out that this problem is especially severe in the North Hills and Montclair neighborhoods. Driving around there during the daytime, one can easily find cars parked on those winding steep streets. “It’s even worse after people get back from work,” Burgess agreed.
Meanwhile, several neighborhood-based groups, including the Oakland Firesafe Council, are negotiating a new vegetation management plan with the City of Oakland. “We are pushing really hard,” Piper said. “Hopefully it will start in the next two-year budget circle [in] July 2017.”
The current vegetation management plan, which is implemented by the Oakland Fire Department, helps prevent wildfire by reducing plants that can fuel fire, which can lead to the possibility of houses catching on fire. Trujillo said they have conducted annual vegetation inspections to force people to clear dead trees and control the height of plants on their properties. Goats are brought in to graze in the hills to consume grass. Compliance standards require that residents keep flammable goods 30 feet away from buildings.
The new plan, based on the current one, would require the clearing of dead trees and replace or eliminate eucalyptus, known as “gasoline trees” in Australia because of their flammability, on the hills. Residents could also expect more frequent and stricter inspections in the future.
But people engaged in the prevention actions all said that the plans still face challenges. Some residents refuse to participate, for example, with parking restrictions. Kalb said the biggest challenge for vehicle access is that “people have garages and they just don’t use them. They just want to park wherever they want.”
Trujillo noted that some “No Parking” signs established by the Fire Department were removed after the firestorm. “We assume it’s the residents there [who removed the signs], because they just wanted to park on the streets,” Trujillo said.
And not everyone participated in the survey about street access. The online survey received 500 responses in the end, but there are at least 3,500 households in the neighborhood, according to Burgess. “Now you see the problem,” she sighed.
Funding is another challenge as well. Two years ago, Oakland voters terminated a 10-year program, the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District (WPAD), in which residents in wildfire-affected areas pay $65 a year to fund fire-prevention activities. “Now we’re running out of the remaining money. We anticipate all money will be gone by June, 2017,” Piper said.
Meanwhile, the City of Oakland, together with UC Berkeley, just lost $3.5 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) this month, which was originally planned for cutting eucalyptus on the hills. In 2006, FEMA announced the agency would provide a grant for the Berkeley-Oakland Hills and the East Bay Regional Park District. But it received great resistance from environmental organizations that opposed cutting down the trees. Last year, a non-profit group, the Hills Conservation Network, sued FEMA and all the grant recipients.
“What you should do is to maintain the tall trees such as eucalyptus, because they do not burn, but clear all the ground fuels like small bushes,” said Hills Conservation Network president Dan Grassetti.
FEMA signed a settlement agreement with the group this month, which will result in the withdrawal of funding.
“The vegetation management plan is still a budget item on the list, and we can move on with it,” Trujillo said, responding to the loss of the grant. “But it will certainly influence what we can and cannot do.”
Some residents believe it is now easier for a wildfire to start than it was 25 years ago. “More dead trees, drier weather, and more cars people own—it’s easier. … And if only some part [of the neighborhood] is fire-resistant, fire still spreads,” Piper said.
With newcomers to the hills, only 27 percent of the residents today experienced the 1991 firestorm, according to a statement from the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District. “People do get aware of the potential wildfire danger,” said Piper. “But they haven’t gone through it and they do not want to get fully prepared.”
But people who remember the firestorm remember it deeply, and with great emotion.
“In the first few years after I moved back to the hills, I packed all my things to a truck on hot dry windy days,” Piper said. “Now I don’t do that anymore, but I still feel anxious on those days. I know we are still vulnerable.”