25 years later: Oakland hills ripe for another firestorm - SFChronicle.com



25 years later: Oakland hills ripe for another firestorm - SFChronicle.com


Twenty-five years after a horrific firestorm killed 25 people and wiped out nearly 3,500 homes in the Oakland hills, the conditions are ripe once again for a similar — if not worse — disaster. The 1991 inferno led to improved policies and equipment for fire and emergency crews, as well as fire-proof materials on homes and roofs. A grove of eucalyptus trees aglow in flame exploded just yards from where she sat in her family van, stuck in traffic with her 9-year-old daughter. Conditions in the fire-hazard area, which runs mostly above Highway 13 and Interstate 580 from Highway 24 south to San Leandro, have gotten worse, said Robert Doyle, general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District, largely due to the drought but also because of the failure to remove brush and trees. Emergency crews and fire departments are very concerned, and in the meantime we have this squabble that’s preventing progress. Last year, six neighbors who call themselves the Hills Conservation Network sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency and landowners UC Berkeley and the city of Oakland, accusing them of unfairly “clear-cutting” eucalyptus, Monterey pines and acacia trees. Dan Grassetti, who heads the Hills Conversation Network, said his group advocates a “species neutral” approach — a term that angers many experts, who blame eucalyptus and other invasive species for spreading the 1991 fire. FEMA settled the lawsuit in September when the federal agency and the state’s Office of Emergency Services agreed to withhold $3.5 million grants to UC Berkeley and Oakland, which would have funded tree removal. The Sierra Club also sued FEMA last year in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claiming the agency’s fire prevention plan didn’t go far enough. Barry Pilger and Catherine Moss, real-estate brokers who lost their home on Buckingham Boulevard to the fire and have since rebuilt, are fed up with what they see as mulish resistance by a small group of activists. “We’ve got these trees suffering in the hills, and the Caldecott acting as a natural wind tunnel,” said Piper, who now chairs the Oakland Firesafe Council, a neighborhood group dedicated to wildfire prevention. Without federal grant money for clearing vegetation, Oakland has focused on regulations. Since 1991, the city has tightened building codes for houses in the hills, requiring residents to use nonflammable roofing materials, cover eaves to keep embers from blowing in, and build the exteriors of new homes with fire-resistant material. Ten years ago the city also passed an ordinance to require sprinkler systems in any new construction in the fire hazard area. The Oakland Fire Department has also acquired new fire engines equipped with all-wheel drive, and purchased better radios to communicate with outside agencies. Since the 1991 fire, the department also has conducted annual home inspections in the hills and provided brochures on vegetation management. Pilger and Moss led a successful 2003 campaign for a 10-year tax, which generated about $1.6 million annually that pays for city inspections, debris removal and goats to graze on grass and brush.



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25 years later