Oakland to pay for East Bay hills wildfire prevention programs after previous funds dry up

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After a measure to continue funding for Oakland’s Wildfire Prevention Assessment District through a parcel tax failed in 2003, the city’s General Fund has assumed fiscal responsibility for fire preventative measures as the last of the district’s funds are depleted.

The Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District was responsible for coordinating the city’s fire prevention strategies, including roadside clearing to maintain low brush and grass and conducting fire hazard property inspections. The district was in its ninth year in 2013 when it failed to achieve the two-thirds vote of approval required for renewal.

“We lost by less than 100 votes,” Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb said. “That left a shortfall. It wasn’t immediate, but after a couple years, once all that money was gone, … that’s what we are trying to deal with now.”

Ever since the measure failed to pass, the city has prepared a Vegetation Management Plan that would monitor and manage vegetation clearing on more than 1,400 acres of city-owned property in Oakland. To help fund the removal of fire-prone trees and vegetation to reduce wildfire hazard, the city received a grant of $2,648,490 from the 2006 Federal Emergency Management Agency Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Funds, with a local match requirement of $882,830.

“(The Vegetation Management Plan is) really necessary, so we have a clear picture of what we need to do and how we need to do it,” Kalb said. “It’s long overdue but finally complete now.”

In 2017, wildfires burned through the North Bay, leading to 43 deaths. In 1991, a major wildfire ripped through the Oakland-Berkeley Hills, killing 25. Of the major wildfires in the Oakland Hills, 15 have been caused by human error, according to Ken Benson, a member of the Oakland Firesafe Council, an organization dedicated to community wildfire danger prevention measures.

“Close to 90% of all wildfires in California are caused by us, by people — they’re not caused by lighting strikes or natural causes,” Benson said in a presentation on behalf of the Oakland Firesafe Council. “Therefore, avoiding a fire is within our ability to control.”

Stacey Frederick, a member of the UC Berkeley Fire Science Laboratory, said the most effective community fire prevention requires both community and individual efforts.

Frederick said individuals can focus on “hardening” their homes, giving them the best chance of surviving a wildfire. This includes clearing a 30-foot buffer zone from vegetation as well as protecting the areas surrounding the home from flammable materials on which wind-blown embers might land.

“It’s a combination of building collaborative (solutions) to the problem — because fire has no boundaries, and we hopefully shouldn’t, either,” Frederick said. “So (it involves) working with neighbors and local counties and the cities. It’s a big project.”

The city has recently funded a variety of fire hazard precautions, including budgeting to hire more vegetation fire managers, who are responsible for inspecting properties that are out of compliance. While Oakland City Council has already budgeted for the inspectors, the city administration now faces the difficulty of hiring and maintaining these inspectors while competing with jobs openings that offer employees higher pay, according to Kalb.

Now that the Vegetation Management Plan is complete, Kalb said, it can be reviewed, and eventually the city could put the plan on the 2018 ballot to recreate the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District.

“The Wildfire Assessment District raised over a million dollars a year,” Kalb said. “The city has not had much of a choice. We have to do what we can to find the funds to take care of our publicly owned lands.”

Alicia Kim is the lead businesses and economy reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.