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By Juliann Beckendorf and Carl Wilson
Thursday October 19, 2000

Safety problems not fixed nine years after hills fire  


The ninth anniversary of the most destructive urban/wildland forest fire in the 20th century will occur on October 20th. Just nine years ago, in 1991, the fire took 25 lives and more than 3,000 homes were lost.  

Yet, despite all the excellent measures taken by the cities of Berkeley and Oakland as well as by the East Bay Regional Parks, the potential for a similar disaster to occur is extremely high. 

Vegetation management in the Berkeley Hills is not under control. We need more fire inspections.  

In response to the 1991 Firestorm, the cities of Berkeley and Oakland set up Fire Assessment Districts, however, both have expired.  

Oakland tried to establish another, but the voters said “no”, and because of Proposition 218, Berkeley didn’t try to renew it.  

Under the Assessment District concept, much was accomplished.  

In Berkeley “green dumpsters” and “chippers” were made available to dispose of fuels which had been removed from around homes of residents living in the “High Hazard Area.” In addition, inspectors were made available by the Fire Department to inspect more than 8,000 properties.  

As long as the inspectors were available, there was effective compliance with common-sense fire prevention rules.  

However, with the loss of the inspectors, financed by the Assessment District funds, the only properties which are currently inspected are adjacent to the Buffer Zone (the fire-safety boundary between the wildland fuels and residential areas). Fire Department Inspectors are able to visit only about 1,000 homes.  

This of course, leaves about 7,000 properties uninspected except after a complaint is filed with the department. Thus, most of the 7,000 properties have not been inspected for about 3 years, and compliance is inadequate.  

Unfortunately, the fuels situation is probably much worse in the Berkeley Hills than it was in 1923 when 584 structures were destroyed within a 2-hour period on September 17th.  

Sad to say, most Berkeleyans do not view vegetation as fuels. But, ALL vegetation will burn under dry East Wind conditions which occurred in October 1991, December 1980, September 1970, and September 1923.  

Will another similar disaster strike Berkeley in the near future? The answer is YES, unless EVERY resident in the Berkeley Hills performs ALL the fuel hazard reduction which is necessary to protect his home and his neighbors from destructive fire.  

It is deplorable that compliance can’t be assured unless the property is inspected on a regular basis. Inspections can’t be assured unless “professional” Inspectors are made available through the Berkeley Fire Department.  

These inspectors, needed for the 7,000 uninspected properties, are not currently available.  

This means that additional funds are urgently needed to employ, train, and provide support for at least three full-time inspectors.  

Another weak link in the management system which protects Berkeley and Oakland residents from destructive urban/wildland fire exists in Claremont Canyon, the highly flammable boundary between the two cities.  

It is common knowledge among fire experts that it would be virtually impossible to make a stand in the canyon under dry East Wind condition.  

This places residents of both cities in jeopardy.  

Because of politics and environmental concerns, major fuel management activities in Claremont Canyon have been suspended until further notice – or until the next wildfire.  

We need more Fire Inspectors and vegetation inspections in the Berkeley/Oakland hills to prevent another major disaster such as the one which killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 in 1991. We need them NOW!  


Juliann Beckendorf is vice chairperson of the Berkeley Fire Safety Commission and Carl Wilson is a member of the Berkeley Fire Safety Commission