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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.

The council and Cal Fire also encourage residents to employ a range of short-term and long-term measures to make their homes more fire resistant — a strategy known as home "hardening."

Ken Benson remodeled his home above the Oakland Zoo in 2005, and included a series of home-hardening fixes, such as replacing his home's siding.

"Its siding was changed out from cedar and redwood siding to a cedar and redwood look-alike," Benson said. "It's fire resistant and fire retardant." And though it's slightly more expensive in the installation, he said "it's rated to not actually catch fire."

But Piper doesn't think private property-level fixes alone are enough to keep residents safe. Some locals believe there is a need for more fire-prevention efforts at a city level.

"We work with the city — sometimes we have to nudge the city — to ensure there are sufficient resources behind wildfire prevention," Piper said.

The city finally addressed part of the reason for its shortage of fire inspectors in its latest budget by creating a single fire inspection unit where vegetation and commercial inspectors are dually trained and paid equally. The city also is now developing a vegetation-management plan for local parks and open spaces that would include one-time projects to enhance fire safety. But Piper thinks the plan falls short of proposing specific-enough projects to know how much money to allocate for them.

Part of the city of Oakland's vegetation plan is to create annual plans each year to address different environmental conditions, said Michael Hunt, chief of staff for the Oakland Fire Department. For example, in a year where the region experienced more rainfall, more frequent removal of brush may be required.

"Ultimately, projects will be identified and prioritized based on both scientific and quantitative data regarding seasonal growth and climate change among other environmental trends," Hunt wrote in an email. And they don't want to minimize the importance of roadside brush clearing, because many fires are human-caused and maintenance of these spaces is important, he added. The city has been incorporating people's comments on the plan and a revised document is anticipated later this summer.

People also should consider removing fire-prone species — especially flammable eucalyptus, which is an invasive species — from their properties, said Jon Kaufman, the board president of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, a Berkeley nonprofit that educates canyon residents about fire prevention.

"We like to tell people that the ground is not going to be bare when you remove eucalyptus," he said, referencing an area along Claremont Avenue where a host of native plants have filled in following the removal of a eucalyptus stand. Trees like California bay laurel, different species of oaks, and willows have started growing there, as well as native grasses, he said.

"All of these are more fire-safe than eucalyptus because eucalyptus is oily and throws off a lot of detritus," Kaufman said.

The conservancy hosts two monthly volunteer events in local Berkeley parks to remove invasive species and share fire-safety information.

At the regional level, locals hope more will be done to connect the efforts of different cities in the region.

"Fire doesn't understand political boundaries," said Steve Hanson, chair of the North Hills Community Association, which represents people living in the Oakland hills and parts of the Berkeley hills. "We've been pushing for regional efforts and organizations to help address this."

One such effort is community members writing letters to entities like Caltrans, which owns large swaths of public land. Some of the land the transportation agency owns includes right-of-ways along major roads that can get overgrown with vegetation. Hanson said that their group's letters asked Caltrans to keep vegetation trimmed back to help prevent fire from spreading to surrounding communities.

Governor Gavin Newsom has requested additional year-round, permanent staff for Cal Fire units across the state, said Jim Crawford, division chief of south bay operations for Cal Fire's Santa Clara unit (the East Bay is considered part of the Santa Clara unit). And thanks to funding from Cal Fire, there will be a series of new projects to manage public lands for fires, including the installation of two new shaded fuel break projects in North Orinda and Highway 17. Fuel breaks are strips of land where vegetation is cleared so that fire can't readily cross it. Shaded fuel breaks are similar, except instead of clearing all vegetation, only ground vegetation is removed — trees are maintained following defensible space guidelines so that they're more fire resistant and keep ground temperatures cooler, discouraging the spread of fire.

And a bill introduced to the California assembly late last year, AB 38, would provide some funding for often-costly home retrofits, as well as allowing for the creation of regional wildfire management districts that would have state oversight. But though the bill originally was slated to provide $1 billion, there is now no specific amount of funding connected to it — it would have to be decided in this year's budget proposal, leaving many to wonder how much help it will provide if it does pass.

Defensible space — how to maintain one's property in a way that makes it less fire-prone and defensible if it does burn — includes guidelines such as ensuring that plants growing within 30 feet of a house are adequately spaced so that fire can't easily spread between them. And this applies vertically, too — a guideline on Cal Fire's website suggests that tree limbs need to hang no lower than 6 feet above the earth to keep fire from spreading from the ground into branches.

For home hardening, in the short term, residents should do things like cleaning their gutters and moving woodpiles away from their houses. In the long-term, fixes such as installing fine mesh over outside vents and replacing wooden siding are effective ways to prevent embers from getting in and setting homes ablaze.

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