Oakland’s Draft Vegetation Management Plan Doesn't Go Gar Enough, by Sue Piper (with help from Jon Kaufman)

A man looks at a destroyed home on Broadway Terrace in October 1991, after the Oakland hills fire that devastated the area a few days earlier, killing dozens of people.    Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice / The Chronicle 1991

A man looks at a destroyed home on Broadway Terrace in October 1991, after the Oakland hills fire that devastated the area a few days earlier, killing dozens of people.

Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice / The Chronicle 1991

Sue Piper's opinion editorial appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 16, 2018 (click here for a link to the article). For the full article (the link is truncated) please continue reading below).

In May, the City of Oakland released its Draft Vegetation Management Plan to reduce the risk of wildfires within the Wildland/Urban Interface of Oakland.  This is the area abutting Berkeley on the North, San Leandro on the South, Contra Costa County on the East, and on the West by a few blocks west of Highways 13 and 580, including Dimond Canyon.

Wildfire has now become a major threat. Lookout towers in this area reported only 136 fires in the 36 years following a major fire in 1923. That is less than four a year. But in the last month alone, June 2018, there have been eight wildfires.

During the 75-year-period between 1923 and 1998, there were 11 Diablo-wind fires which burned 9,840 acres, destroyed 3,542 homes, and took 26 lives, with over $2 billion in financial losses.  When mapped it becomes apparent that the fires often recur in the same general areas and show similar environmental conditions.

Unfortunately, the Draft Plan has missed the mark on several fronts:

·      The Plan doesn’t take into account the “new normal” of wildfire in California—one where after seven years of drought, we are seeing larger, more rapidly spreading wildfires throughout the year. There is no longer a fire season. Wildfire prevention is year round.

·      The Plan filters its approach through the lens of potential ignition zones—roadsides or near structures—without taking into account the fact that wildfires spread by embers that can travel miles away from the source of the fire. While Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan only focuses on city-owned parks and open spaces, the fact is that most of the wildfires in Oakland started elsewhere and spread to city-owned land. The Draft Plan has no strategy for dealing with the larger area, which would require close coordination with other, public and private landowners.

•    The Plan does not contain enough specificity about how to reduce the fire risk in Oakland’s parks and open spaces, and it does not ensure that the fire danger will be significantly reduced.

Specific methods in specific locations are needed so that the public knows what will be accomplished and that contractors hired by the City to do the work will understand what will be expected of them.

The methods to be used to remove hazardous vegetation in these identified projects also must be described more specifically so that we can know that they will be effective. For example, trees on ridgelines known to be at high risk of spreading wildfire must be removed by means known to permanently solve the problem.

In addition, these projects must be prioritized based on fire modeling— to include fuel load, proximity to densely populated neighbors, ability to spread fire widely, and history of fire in the vicinity. This will enable the City and its citizens to decide how many and which projects we can afford to undertake.

These projects must be identified so that cost estimates for their implementation can be made and a budget developed. Currently, the Draft plan is not a 10-year plan; it only states that projects will be undertaken when "budget and time allow" on an annual basis. Without specificity for each site and the methods to be employed in each, no cost estimates can be made or funds identified.

Finally, the Plan must require that the City work closely with the other cities, the Park District, East Bay MUD, the University of California, Cal Fire and other land owners in the hills so that fire prevention will become an effective strategy.

Getting the plan right is important because it will become the basis for an Environmental Impact Report and the creation of a special wildfire management district that will assess property owners for the cost of reducing the threat of future wildfires.

The Plan must be revised to address these weaknesses.