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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 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.

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