Wildfire prevention district disbands amid growing concern for safety in Oakland hills
Sue Piper pulls weeds out of the gravel pathway at the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center and Garden off Tunnel Road in the Oakland hills on Oct. 17, 2016. Piper and her husband Gordon Piper are survivors of the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm and have worked to keep their community safe and educate their fellow residents in fire safety and prevention. (Laura A. Oda/Staff archives)
OAKLAND — The Wildfire Prevention Assessment District may have held its last meeting, but the campaign to make the Oakland hills fire safe is anything but over.
District officials gathered for the last time June 14 to close out the district’s operations, honor volunteers and discuss ways to maintain the service it used to provide.
With funds from a special assessment fee charged to Oakland hills homeowners, the district cleared dry grass and other flammable vegetation on property owned by the city itself. But in 2013, a ballot proposal to raise the tax from $65 to $78 a year and extend the WPAD tenure narrowly failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
With no other source of funding, money for hills fire safety will have to come from the city’s general fund. District supporters met with members of the Oakland City Council this past week to lobby for adequate funds. Oakland’s budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year is going through final revisions and must be adopted by July 1.
The total bill is estimated to exceed $1 million, which includes approximately $500,000 for using grazing goats to clear large open spaces, and a similar amount to clear median strips and other city-owned rights-of-way plus a number of municipally owned parcels, said chairwoman Sue Piper.
The vote to continue the district failed by only 66 voters four years ago, according to Piper. Many homeowners thought the funds would be used for fire inspections of private property and were disappointed to find out that it only paid for city-owned land.
“There was a lot of confusion, she said. “The city was not doing a good job of explaining what it (fire district) did.”
It didn’t help that during one summer, more than 1,000 calls were made to the city’s vegetation hotline but were not returned because new employees didn’t know that the hotline existed, according to Piper.
“Some people felt mostly that they were not getting their $65 worth,” she said. Adding to that, there was a lot of misinformation during the campaign.
Funding for hills fire safety will have to compete with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s plan to hire more inspectors for commercial buildings in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire at a warehouse that killed 36 people last December.
Schaaf wants to add a dozen inspectors to the fire prevention bureau and hills residents are hoping that at least two of those positions will be dedicated to their area. The vegetation management department has only three inspectors, when traditionally it has had five.
An analyst position which supported vegetation management supervisor Vince Crudele will be eliminated at the end of month but may be restored under the new budget.
Fire officials are also dealing with some public protest stemming from a series of fire safety bills mailed out to homeowners earlier this year. Each year, fire inspectors examine homes in the hills to determine if they are complying with state safety regulations.
If a site is not in compliance, homeowners can be charged $303 if the inspector has to return to reexamine the land. Some property owners claim they are being billed for violations that occurred several years ago and have since been abated.
To clear up the situation, the fire department is conducting an audit and is waiving the fee if a property passes on the second visit.
Homeowners and at least one member of the WPAD board insist that city is out of compliance on its property and should be held to the same standards as residents.
Piper said the city is working on an overall vegetation management plan, which will outline the area’s fire safety risks and examine the impact abatement would have on local wildlife and plants via an environmental impact report.
The plan will be key to determining the area’s fire safety needs and solutions over the next decade.
“Once you have it, you have a game plan for the next 10 years and we can determine how much we can afford,” Piper said.