Price of Fire Safety Is an Issue in Oakland

Times Staff Writer

The October 1991 firestorm that swept into the Oakland hills was the deadliest of California wildfires.

In just 15 hours, strong, dry winds drove flames through eucalyptus groves and canyons thick with untrimmed brush, destroying 3,000 hillside homes and incinerating 25 people.

Now, 12 years after the devastating blaze, an Oakland citizens group is striving to persuade voters here to pay to maintain a program to control vegetation before it becomes a lethal hazard. The proposed measures include the use of goats, which would graze on the hillsides and consume combustible brush.

Some officials see the Oakland proposal as a model for fire-prone Southern California communities seeking means to clear fuel from surrounding wild lands.

However, in 1997, a similar campaign here failed, and once again, organizers find themselves contending with hill dwellers who already believe they pay their fair share of municipal taxes, more than enough to cover the proposed brush management program. As much as anything, perhaps, the campaign organizers are up against the tendency to turn a blind eye to threats inherent in beautiful, dangerous places such as the wooded hills overlooking San Francisco Bay.

The proposed 10-year, $18-million fire prevention program would be funded by an annual levy on homeowners, ranging from $32 to $65.

In addition to putting goats out to graze in public open spaces, the program would pay for manual brush and grass clearance, inspectors to monitor private property conformance, and "roving fire patrols" during the fire season.

The Oakland campaign to create a special assessment district may have been given a timely boost by the terrifying television images of recent Southern California fires, which stirred the memories of 1991 Oakland fire victims.

"Because of the emotion generated by the Southern California fires, I fear this one is likely to pass," said Oakland teacher John Willson, 54, who opposes the measure, saying that it is an unfair tax on the hill community where he lives.

"A number of us are concerned that this is just a ploy by the city to pad its budget during difficult fiscal times," Willson said. He and others complain that the cash-strapped Oakland government views hill dwellers as "cash cows."

Others argue that the plan is necessary, and inexpensive at the price.

"It is suicide not to do this," countered Bob Sieven, 66, an Oakland neurologist who supports the proposal. Sieven estimates that he has volunteered 1,000 hours of his time over the past three years, clearing tons of highly flammable French broom plants and Monterey pines from private land surrounding his hillside townhouse. The assessment district would pay for similar clearance from public lands, parks and forests.

"The whole point is that once a fire starts," said Sieven, "all you can do is get out of there. But if you do your work in advance, you can mitigate it and have a chance to control it."

What happens to the special district proposal in Oakland, supporters say, could be a precedent for communities in San Diego, Ventura and San Bernardino as they struggle to finance similar vegetation control plans in areas where parks and forests abut housing developments.

Oakland City Councilwoman Jean Quan said several Southern California officials have already contacted her about the Oakland initiative, which, under the complicated rules governing special districts, will come to a final vote in January after a public hearing.

"When you live in fire and earthquake country you have to face these kinds of issues," said Quan, who represents the Oakland hill district hit by the 1991 blaze. "The same thing we are trying to do here could be applied in many other places. The virtue of the assessment district is that it charges only those people who are going to get the service."

Under the Oakland plan, which has been endorsed by Mayor Jerry Brown and the entire City Council, a special Wildfire Prevention Assessment District would be created to cover fire-prone areas, mostly in the hills above Oakland containing 21,000 households. Under state laws governing special assessment districts, only property owners inside the district vote, and their votes are weighted by the amount of property they own.

Since 1978, when Proposition 13 capped property taxes, counties and municipalities have turned increasingly to assessment and special tax districts to fund programs and, in some cases, even basic services.

According to the state controller's office, California has more than 3,400 special districts in the state, ranging from minuscule cemetery and mosquito abatement districts to the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that serves 17 million people in six counties.

Recent state records list 386 special fire protection districts. However, nearly all of these were created for basic firefighting needs, such as equipment and fire stations.

In 1993, two years after the Oakland fire when memories of the horror were fresh, the City Council created the state's first vegetation management special district. However, the district had a five-year sunset provision that expired in 1997.

In the interim, California voters had passed Proposition 218, which required a popular vote to create special districts. The approval of two-thirds of registered voters is necessary for a special tax district while half of voting property owners must agree to a special assessment district, such as the one proposed for Oakland.

The change in voting procedure forced Oakland officials to go to the polls in 1997 to continue the vegetation management district. To the shock of many, voters rejected the proposal.

The problem was overconfidence, said Sue Piper, a marketing consultant whose home was destroyed in the 1991 fire. Supporters could not imagine anyone who had seen the Oakland fire rejecting any fire prevention proposal.

"Everyone thought it was a slam dunk, and it failed," said Piper, who coordinates the current campaign from her rebuilt home in the Oakland hills.

The campaign has its own Web site, at www.oaklandwild firepreventiondistrict.org. Organizers stage regular events, including photography exhibits, to remind voters of the 1991 fire. To keep fire danger awareness alive, Piper and her husband, Gordon, organized the construction of two memorials, the Firestorm Memorial Garden near their Hiller Heights home and a permanent exhibit center on a dramatic overlook of San Francisco Bay.

Public officials have done their part to stress the urgency of the measure. After the 1997 voter rejection, vegetation management has been funded by a combination of state and federal grants and money from the general fund. But beginning next year, said Councilwoman Quan, these funds will not be available.

"At a time when we are closing libraries and laying off policemen," said Quan, "I would feel awkward about taking this out of the general fund."

Opponent Willson complains about this as "Mafioso style, either pay up or burn out" politics.

The use of 1991 fire pictures to push the cause, Willson said, "is like taking a picture of a hungry child in the Third World and pocketing the donations. It's a cover-up for an inept, incompetent city government."

Floyd and Claudette Crump, both 65, live in a large Mediterranean-style house they built after their first home was destroyed in the 1991 fire. Three pets -- a dog, cat and a parrot -- perished in the blaze. The Crumps lost all of their family mementos and their collection of vintage wines.

Since the fire, the couple have been active on the fire prevention committee of their neighborhood homeowners association.

Around their new home, they planted fire resistant trees and shrubbery. Both wholeheartedly support the proposed fire district assessment plan.

"If we don't do anything to prevent it," said Floyd Crump, a retired businessman, "it could happen again. Once is enough."

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