OAKLAND (KPIX) — After almost 30 years, people who made it out of the Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991 are starting to talk about the growing danger they see today.
Two years of catastrophic fires have people across California wondering if their community is ready for the next fire and that’s especially true in the East Bay Hills.
“We used to be able to see across the canyon,” says Oakland resident Jere Lipps. “Now you can’t because of the eucalyptus and the redwoods that have grown up.”
Lipps lives in on the city’s wildland-urban-interface (WUI).
“This is all Joaquin Miller Park down here,” he explained, pointing to a satellite image of his neighborhood and the adjoining green space. The park is just one piece of the region’s open space and neighbors say it is a disaster waiting to happen. They point to years worth of accumulating fuel in the area. Lipps doesn’t see the danger getting any more manageable, decades after the Oakland Hills fire.
“My estimate is a doubling or tripling of the fuel load in this canyon,” Lipps said.
Not far away, the Oakland fire department is nibbling away at some of that risk.
“We deployed several hundred goats here on this ridge line, to basically create an upper-level fuel break here,” explained Vince Crudele, head of vegetation management for the Oakland Fire Department.
Goats are just one part of the city’s million-dollar effort to reduce fire risk in the hills but the city does not have an actual vegetation management plan. For now, that’s still a work in progress.
“We’re basically trying to outline what it is we intend to do on an annual basis during the fire season and the mitigation practices that we’ll adopt and deploy in the future,” Crudele says of the planning.
It’s not just fuel management that has people concerned.
Neighbors also worry that there is no plan for how to get people out of the hills, something that proved chaotic in 1991. They point to communities across the Bay Area that have been doing some evacuation education. Oakland, so far, has not.
“They don’t talk about it,” says Sue Piper of the Oakland Fire Safe Council. “Other than to say, ‘oh, we can’t tell you because we don’t know where the fire is coming.’ Well why do other cities have plans? And our answer to that is there are only so many roads people can take to get off the hill.”
Sue Piper has spent years trying to nudge the city towards a more aggressive fire safety program. She thinks the city’s wildfire budget should be doubled. As for evacuations, some residents aren’t waiting for instructions.
“If they’re having to evacuate as a family or they’re in a group so they can understand what the possible routes are, depending on where the threat is coming from,” explained Doug Mosher, as he held up a map of the Oakland Hills with major roads highlighted as possible evacuation routes. Mosher and Bonnie Bouey are taking matters into their own hands, building out their own disaster command center which is to be be staffed by neighbors. The idea in this garage and others like it: help cannot be counted on.
“People need to understand that and do what they can to be as prepared as they can,” Mosher said.
“I lost my home in 1991,” Sue Piper said as she walked beside a memorial to those lost in that fire.
“You cannot wait for the cavalry or the city or the fire department to come save you. It’s neighbors helping neighbors. You’ve got to be prepared.”
So while the city continues to draw up plans and search for more funding, a lot of neighbors are growing impatient. The Oakland fire department says it is doing the most it can with the resources it has. “There is more to be done, to be quite honest,” admits Crudele. “But every government entity, every city fire department, fire district, is going to have financial constraints.”
Just ask the survivors of 1991. The risk in the hills is real and it’s likely just a matter of time until the next fire.
“Everybody in the neighborhood needs to be informed,” Lipps said. “They may not want to do it but their lives are on the line if they don’t.”
Oakland homeowners used to pay an annual tax that went specifically to wildfire prevention. Voters decided not to renew that tax in 2013. The latest Oakland city budget will provide an additional $1 million for vegetation management but just for a year. The new budget should also provide more fire inspectors for the city.
Oakland is also organizing with its regional neighbors, as this problem is shared by a number of parties across the East Bay hills. The state, via Cal Fire, is also providing assistance with clearing vegetation around roadways.