Touring the urban-wildland interface with Oakland Deputy Fire Chief James Edwards, by Bill McClung

For about two miles along the southern and western edges of Claremont Canyon, nearly a thousand houses and private properties directly face about a hundred acres of wildlands. The management of these undeveloped lands owned by the Regional Park District, City of Oakland, and private landowners could determine whether firefighters can successfully keep future wildland fires from engulfing whole neighborhoods in minutes.

A man who knows well the challenges of fighting fires in Claremont Canyon and elsewhere in the Oakland Hills is Oakland Deputy Chief James Edwards, a 20-year veteran of the Oakland Fire Department, and newly rotated into the position of Fire Marshal. In addition to fighting the 1991 Fire, he was incident commander for the successful attack on the 1999 fire between Stonewall and Panoramic Hill.  That operation was considered a striking success, as a fast-moving brush fire was prevented from entering the eucalyptus stand above Clark Kerr Campus and prevented from spreading up to Panoramic Hill.

We asked Jim to visit the Claremont Canyon interface with us. On February 6, Marilyn Goldhaber and Bill McClung walked and drove with him along the interface along Norfolk and Strathmoor, where the Conservancy helped create a buffer zone in 2006 with the Park District, on private land in the Drury Court and Dartmouth area, and in Garber Park, where substantial work was done by the City of Oakland in 2006. On February 23 we toured the area again, this time with Martin Holden and Matt Mitchell, as well.  We showed Chief Edwards the Stonewall Buffer Zone, where a major eucalyptus removal project was accomplished in 2006, and then hiked up the ridge to view Panoramic Hill.

These two walks were enjoyable and we were grateful to have an opportunity to call to Chief Edward’s attention areas where vegetation management seems adequate and where it falls dangerously short of the standards recommended by 1995 Fire Hazard Mitigation Program & Fuel Management Plan for the East Bay Hills. The landscape is complex and large areas are difficult to access, but we know fires do not hesitate to burn up steep slopes and through thick brush and poison oak.

We are inviting Chief Edwards to think about whether a fire can be successfully fought in each interface location in Claremont Canyon, and to exercise his authority where he feels changes are needed. These tours were the first of many we would like to organize with wildfire experts, as suggested by the North Hills Phoenix Association Citizens’ 2006 Review of the 1992 Final Report of the Task Force on Emergency Preparedness and Community Restoration (Forestry and Vegetation section chaired by William McClung and Robert Sieben) .