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Hillside Residents Focus on the Serious Business of Fire Prevention

People who live with the risk of wildfires know that they're only as strong as the weakest link in their neighborhood.

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The Hiller Highlands has a tragic claim to fame. In October of 1991, a wildfire fueled by strong winds swept across the dry Oakland Hills and destroyed all 1,800 of its homes. Bob Sieben moved to the neighborhood after it was rebuilt, and started organizing a yearly day during which homeowners and volunteers cleared flammable plant material from around peoples' homes. But around 2008, he concluded that wasn't enough to safeguard his neighborhood from fire.

"It's too steep for volunteers," Sieben said of the hillside terrain. So he convinced the neighborhood's homeowners association to make residents pay a $150 annual fee for professional vegetation clearing. Other homeowner associations should follow this model of collective wildfire protection, Sieben belives. But many neighborhoods lack such associations, and fixes can be expensive.

Preparation is serious business for people who live in the path of the 1991 firestorm, where the threat of another wildfire is an ever-present source of anxiety. Now more than ever, homeowners are taking steps to fortify their properties against fire. Many newer homes have features to help them survive fires, but property protection doesn't stop at the walls or roof of one's house. Controlling vegetation also matters.

Yet convincing other property owners to implement solutions designed to benefit everyone takes education and persuasion. And even despite laws that mandate compliance, far too many properties are less safe than they should be.

"In a big event, 911 isn't going to do it," said Sue Piper, an Oakland Hills resident who lost her home in the 1991 fire. "You're only as strong as the weakest link in your neighborhood."

Last year, Piper and her neighbors watched as fires like the Camp Fire in Paradise killed 89 people and burned thousands of homes and businesses to the ground. Thanks to warmer conditions and ample natural fuel, such fires are lasting longer than the deadly 1991 blaze that killed 25 people and destroyed thousands of homes. They want to make sure that that tragedy doesn't repeat itself.

In 2014, Piper and other survivors of the Oakland hills firestorm formed the Oakland Firesafe Council to mobilize residents to protect their properties and advocate for fire safety. In May and June of each year, council members work on clearing brush and tidying properties in hopes of passing upcoming fire inspections. "We've been madly cutting back the vegetation around our properties," Piper said during a May interview.

Such annual inspections — during which a fire inspector confirms that an owner has taken appropriate measures to protect their home — are considered an essential way to ensure that homeowners comply with basic defensible-space guidelines. Since the deadly 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire claimed 36 lives, the city has worked to hire more fire inspectors. But for a while, Piper said, there was a "revolving door of inspectors." Vegetation inspectors would get hired, she said, then transfer to be commercial inspectors because it paid better, creating a shortage of vegetation inspectors.

For various reasons, Piper estimates that up to 10 percent of property owners don't pass their fire inspections each year, putting the surrounding neighborhoods at increased risk. So members of the council offer property walks, visiting houses and pointing out areas where residents can make fixes, such as trimming back plants.

"People thought, 'Oh vegetation management — that's reducing vegetation on your property,'" Piper said. "But since 2017 to 2018, we've had to broaden that concept. Now we talk about 'defensible space.'"

Since the passage of a 2005 law, everyone living on the fire-prone edges of urban areas — also referred to as the wildland-urban interface — is required by law to maintain defensible space. But as with any chain, there are weak links. Fixes can be costly or time consuming. And while the city can put a lien on the property of someone who fails an inspection, the homeowner need not address that until they decide to sell the property.

Piper said people who don't create adequate defensible space around their homes make it harder to defend their home in a disaster and put others' homes at risk, so making these changes is necessary.

"We live in harm's way," she said, adding that making properties fire-safe is part of the responsibility of people who live in harm's way. Piper has proposed making defensible space a code-compliance issue. That way, if someone didn't pass a fire inspection, the city could place a fine on their property tax that they would have to pay whenever they next paid that tax.

"I think it would have a better effect on changing behavior because it happens relatively sooner rather than later," she said.

On the flip side, when fire does strike, each household having a memorized evacuation plan is another huge part of getting people to safety as efficiently as possible.

"The more you review it, the more it is ingrained in your brain," Piper said, "and I can tell you from personal experience, when you have to leave, that flight or fight instinct kicks in and that is not the time to be worrying about your evacuation plan." For example, this plan might include things like knowing which two things you're going to grab before leaving or picking up an elderly neighbor who can't get off the hill on their own, she said.

Piper said the Firesafe Council just received a $125,000 grant from Cal Fire to organize neighborhoods in the Oakland hills to be better prepared for disasters and wildfires. The funding will be used to create Oakland Community Preparedness and Readiness Program, which will offer several programs, including fire-safety workshops to homeowners, starting in September.

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