Oakland’s Fire Risk Worsens

Vegetation vigilantes sound the wildfire alarm. The mayor’s budget proposes additional management, but is it sufficient?


The Oakland hills fire of October 1991 killed 25 people and injured 150 others.

Photo courtesy FEMA

Beneath the canopy of pines and oaks and dry ivy in Dimond Park, there’s one spot in the parking lot where you’ll find shards of molten aluminum and charred glass. At some point, someone set a car on fire there, and it melted into the ground. Had the nearby brush not been cleared of debris by anonymous volunteers, the flames could have ignited a major wildfire. If the city of Oakland doesn’t seriously step up its prevention efforts, fire safety advocates and park lovers say the risk will only grow.

Much like recent reports of “pothole vigilantes” fixing Oakland’s pockmarked streets, some areas such as Dimond Park benefit from the services of vegetation vigilantes, who do the unpermitted work of removing weeds, clearing ivy, pruning dead trees, and raking dry brush. Known by locals as “OWLS,” for Oakland Wild-Life Stewards, the presence of these volunteers highlights another dire service gap that City Hall is struggling to fill.

After two historic fire seasons in a row devastated parts of California, and a bountiful rainy season has enabled vegetation to flourish, Oakland’s nearly 2,000 acres of public land will require more assiduous vegetation management. Mayor Libby Schaaf’s budget proposal for fiscal years 2019-2021, released in early May, allocates $1.1 million per year to that purpose, an increase of 10 percent from the previous budget cycle. A draft vegetation management plan released last year by the fire department outlines best practices for tackling this major challenge, but activists say more needs to be done as soon as possible.

“There is still much work ahead,” said Michael Hunt, chief of staff for the Oakland Fire Department, regarding the plan. Hunt said that more specific details in the vegetation management plan “will come as a result of additional concerns and feedback expressed by the public” via their submitted comments to the final draft.

“It’s not enough,“ countered Sue Piper, chair of the Oakland Firesafe Council. “Even with the million dollars they’ve budgeted for the past two years, that only did two-thirds of the city’s properties. They need to do all of the city’s properties.”

In a statement provided by the group Friends of Dimond Park, volunteers said that the city could do more to collaborate with sanctioned volunteer work that groups perform under the city’s Adopt-a-Spot program. The group called for “a solution where community can be a community,” urging the city to “make good use of well-intentioned community members.”

“We want to be positive,” the statement concluded. “We have people clamoring to help. We want to participate, we want to collaborate, and we’re willing to do work.”

Adopt-a-Spot notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the city will be able to leverage the good intentions of its clandestine OWLS to do more comprehensive work. More strenuous vegetation management requires the use of power tools, which the fire department will not authorize without proper training.

“Due to liability concerns, powered abatement equipment is not authorized for use by volunteers,” Hunt said.

To truly reduce wildfire risk, Oakland will need the cooperation not only of altruistic volunteers, but virtually every property owner north of the Interstate 580 freeway.

“When you think about wildfire prevention, you think vegetation management,” Piper said. “It’s a lot more than that. We have to talk about hardening homes.”

In addition to more funding for vegetation management, the mayor’s new budget proposal calls for 11 new positions in the fire department’s Fire Prevention Bureau, “to modernize and augment” the division. That’s much easier said than done, but inspecting private property, too, will be critical for preventing another Oakland hills firestorm, like the one that destroyed more than 3,200 houses, condos, and apartments in 1991, killing 25 people.

In 2011, at the nadir of the Great Recession, Oakland downgraded its six employees in the vegetation management unit from full-time to part-time status. According to a 2013 report from City Auditor Courtney Ruby, these part-time employees exhausted their allowable hours early in the year, before peak fire season. Moreover, the fire department failed to abate most properties that were out of compliance with the fire code: Only 7.4 percent of needed abatements were completed in 2011, and only 18 percent in 2012.

To make matters worse, the fire department failed to collect on the fees and liens levied on noncompliant properties, which are supposed to cover at least part of the cost of inspections. In 2011, the department recouped $0; the following year, out of $130,572 invoiced in fees, the Department received only $7,819.

Since then, city officials and firefighters say the situation has improved, and Schaaf’s budget proposes funding the new fire prevention positions entirely through fee collection — which additional staffing is intended to ensure. Repeated failure to comply results in a lien levied on the property.

“There are certainly houses that I’ve written up multiple years in a row,” said Zac Unger, a local firefighter and president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 55 union. “It’s gotten better, and having those additional staffers in the mayor’s proposal will help with doing the follow-up.”

However, Unger pointed to systemic staffing shortages that have become a perennial concern for labor leaders during budget negotiations. “Oakland has been growing, but it hasn’t added firefighters in 30 years,” Unger said. “We’re have the biggest port on the West Coast, but we no longer have a fire boat anymore,” which could pose risks for new developments along the waterfront in Jack London Square and the Brooklyn Basin.

While a May 2 report from the city administrator’s office identified 83 vacant positions in the fire department, Chief of Staff Michael Hunt confirmed that 25 recruits will begin training in July as firefighters and paramedics. The vegetation management unit has one full-time supervisor, and although two of the four of the full-time fire suppression district inspector positions remain vacant, interviews to fill those positions began in April. The fire department will be developing a 2020-2025 strategic plan that will, in part, outline best practices for coordinating wildfire prevention work between city departments.

Budget negotiations will pit the challenges of staffing vacancies and demands for more competitive wages against rising pension obligations and police overtime costs, which city officials say are ballooning faster than revenues despite a healthy economy.

“Our most senior fire protection engineers could move to San Francisco, get hired at the lowest end of San Francisco’s pay scale, and it would still be a pay raise,” said Jennifer Li, spokesperson for the IFPTE Local 21 union. Li pointed to a job listing for a fire protection engineer in Oakland with an annual salary range of $87,978 to $108,027, while the same position is advertised in San Francisco’s Human Resources Department for a salary range of $124,540 to $151,372.

District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao, whose district encompasses Dimond Park and many of the Oakland hills neighborhoods facing wildfire risks, said she would be working with Mayor Schaaf to address staffing vacancies in the budget, and make wildfire prevention a higher policy priority overall.

“I continue to be in full support of doubling the number of fire-prevention staffers,” Thao said, “making sure that we have adequate funding for vegetation management and other wildfire prevention measures, combining of the vegetation inspectors and fire inspectors under the same classification so that there’s not a high turnaround in vegetation staffing — and most importantly, filling vacancies to have 100 percent staffing in these departments.”

As budget negotiations get underway, city leaders and various stakeholder groups will be grappling with a long history of management and structural problems to bolster Oakland against a litany of impending risks and crises. Their challenges parallel the Dimond Park vigilantes’ work, clearing decades of dead ivy hidden underneath the greenery, lest they catch a fatal spark.

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