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A man and woman are piling brush in a cart. In this black and white photo, a pile of brush in a cart is on the left, with a man's hands in it, his face turned to the right .He is masked, with a black T-shirt, glasses and cap. To his right is a woman, her face downward as she works in a black jacket and baseball cap.

‘Without volunteers, this park would burn down’: Groups work to reduce fire risk in Oakland.

on October 26, 2023

Dale Risden always worries when he sees the densely packed trees growing on the hills in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park, which spans 500 acres within the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone designated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Risden is the chair of Friends of Joaquin Miller Park, a community group of volunteers. Members work each weekend to clear fire hazards by hand, but Risden says it’s not enough.

Volunteer organizations like Friends of Joaquin Miller Park are doing what they can to prevent a repeat of the 1991 Tunnel Fire, which killed 25 people in the East Bay hills. 

“Without volunteers, this park would burn down,” Risden said.

Black and white photo. The back of a man in a cap and vest with the words City of Oakland Public Works Volunteer printed on the back stands in a park talkng to a man to his right who is wearing a cap, glasses and a shirt with the words California Triple Clown on the left sleeve.
Dale Risden, left, discusses fire prevention work with Mike Melone. (Julian Wray)

Oakland conducts some vegetation management in its open spaces, such as targeted grazing with goats. But the city lacks a coordinated approach to the kind of work Risden believes is vital to fire prevention, such as clearing overgrown trees in parks. 

Funding for much of the Oakland Fire Department’s efforts used to come from the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, a program established in 2003. When the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District failed to garner enough votes for renewal in 2013, a new vegetation management plan was proposed by the city to fund more extensive efforts. Since then, the program has lingered in the planning stage, leaving areas like Joaquin Miller Park overgrown and filled with dry, dead wood. 

The proposed plan, which would fund efforts over nearly 2,000 acres in Oakland, was drafted by the Fire Department in 2018 and has been revised and circulated for public feedback several times over the last five years. This has added detail to the plan but also has extended the development process, explained Ken Benson, chair of the Oakland Firesafe Council, a nonprofit which advocates for fire safety measures in the city.

The latest draft was released on Sept. 20, containing a more extensive environmental impact assessment. But certain aspects of the plan, such as the amount and source of funding, are not specified. Benson hopes the plan will be complete by the end of the year and on the ballot next year. 

Until then, volunteer groups are stepping in. 

Goats eat the grass

Last month Risden led a group of 10 volunteers from the Oakland Rotary Club into the park to clear downed branches that fell during heavy storms in March. They couldn’t do anything about the tree trunks, though, since volunteers are only allowed to use hand tools in the park. 

The same day, Councilmember Janani Ramachandran, who represents the area, joined a different volunteer group cleaning up the Joaquin Miller Dog Park. She expressed support for Risden’s efforts.

“The city can’t do it on its own,” Ramachandran said. “In order to prevent a serious wildfire, the number one thing is vegetation management.”

A black and white photo showing a field of brittle grass with hundreds of goats grazing in it, with one white goat looking straight into the camera i the foreground.
A goat herd in Shepherd Canyon Park (Julian Wray)

The Oakland Fire Department focuses on maintaining road and trail access for its crews and equipment, spokesperson Michael Hunt said. They also employ goat herds to clear grass in the city’s open spaces, often in areas where mowers can’t reach.

But goats can’t clear bushes or dead trees that pose a fire risk. Those responsibilities fall to Oakland Public Works, which Risden said hasn’t been able to keep up with the volume of work required in areas like Joaquin Miller Park. 

According to records of 311 calls, Oakland Public Works Department has received over 25,000 service requests related to trees throughout the city in the last decade. It has responded to many of those requests, but 5,000 were unanswered due to a lack of funding or staff. It can sometimes take the department months or years to respond to calls about dying or fallen trees.

Joe DeVries, a deputy city administrator, acknowledged these shortcomings in a recent meeting of the Oakland Firesafe Council.

“They just don’t have the resources they need to do the job,” DeVries said of Oakland Public Works and Oakland Fire Department.

Blacm and white photo of a man in dark clothes and baseball cap on the left, a woman in a long black T-shirt and jeans and cap in the middle and a man in a cowboy hat, jeans and tan jacket all lifting branches onto a cart.
From left, Greg Annis, Shannon Hackley and Dana Sack collect downed branches at Joaquin Miller Park. (Julian Wray)

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