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Treacherous Oakland Hills Roads Hinder Firefighters

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1991 Oakland Hills Fire. (CBS)

1991 Oakland Hills Fire. (CBS)

DougSovern20100908_KCBS_0208r Doug Sovern
Doug began his career as a copy boy at the New York Times, and then...
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SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – There have been many firefighting improvements since a deadly firestorm ripped through the hills of Berkeley and Oakland 20 years ago next week. However, firefighters can’t do much about the hills themselves, forcing them to navigate dangerous roads whenever flames break out.

“It’s really slow-going trying to navigate because there’s a lot of hills, turns and blind corners,” said Oakland fire Lt. Sheree Banks at Fire Station 7.

Battalion Chief William Towner said that homeowners can help by keeping the roads as clear as possible. That means not parking cars illegally, and clearing overhanging vegetation.

“You can’t really change the roads, but we can work on this fuel mitigation,” said Towner. “That’s removing fuels on both public and private lands.”

Twenty years ago next week 25 people died in the Oakland Hills Fire, most of them because they couldn’t escape the flames, down the narrow streets which were blocked by burning cars.

Unfortunately, budget cuts have hampered the fire department’s ability to make sure the risk of wildfire is as low as possible in the hills.

On the flip side, homeowners appear poised to take matters into their own hands.

Residents in the fire zone were surprised this year to receive forms asking them to tell the fire department if they were complying with the fire regulations – instead of notices warning that inspectors would be coming around.

“They’ve had to scale back the amount of dedicated vegetation management inspectors,” Towner described the downside of budget cuts.

Nonetheless, he insists every property is still being inspected, eventually, by neighborhood station firefighters. More importantly, 90% of homeowners have voluntarily complied by clearing brush and debris.

“Homeowners have taken a lot of responsibility on themselves to make sure that their properties are more defensible from the firefighting standpoint and to help us to protect their home by removing flammable vegetation stuff around their homes,” he said.

KCBS’ Doug Sovern Reports:

According to Towner, two straight cool, damp summers have reduced the risk of another calamitous fire as we approach the 20th anniversary of the 1991 firestorm.

Still, firefighters are patrolling to make sure vacant lots and even built-up ones are defensible, with brush and debris cleared.

“It’s that time of year, it’s time to get your property into compliance,” he emphasized.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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