Neighbors of a proposed fire station in the north Berkeley hills are charging that the city is inappropriately using money earmarked to build the station for a multi-jurisdictional wildfire “command center.”
They say the city should not use bond revenues from 1992’s Measure G – which called for a “jointly funded, multi-jurisdictional fire station” to battle wildfires in the hills – to replace the aged Fire Station No. 7 at 2931 Shasta Rd.
The city, led by Councilmember Betty Olds, has long been planning to move Station No. 7 from its current location up the hill to the corner of Shasta and Park Hill roads.
The group bristled at recent reports in the press, and comments from city officials, that their true motive is to stop construction of the new fire station, which will be located closer to many of their homes.
“That is flatly not true,” said Russ Henke, one of the people still fighting for a larger, joint command station.
Henke’s neighbor, Louise Larson, added that the group “will not fight a new fire station – not at all. We just want the station that was promised to us.”
Measure G, approved by 78 percent of Berkeley citizens, was put on the ballot after the devastating Oakland-Berkeley hills fire in 1991. Its intent was to prevent similar catastrophes by building a command center staffed by many agencies, including the Berkeley Fire Department, the Oakland Fire Department and the firefighting forces of the East Bay Regional Parks District.
But after years of study, Berkeley and Oakland could not agree on the location of the center. Eventually, Oakland, which had passed its own version of Berkeley’s Measure G, pulled out of the project and built its own station near Claremont Canyon.
Now, with the new Station 7 proposal, Berkeley wishes to do the same. According to Olds, the new station – which would be built with Measure G money – would include facilities for the parks district firefighters, and would be ready to fight wildfires.
“Measure G’s intent was to build a multi-jurisdictional station, and we have fulfilled that by bringing in the Parks District,” she said.
“It’s a front-line defense. We have a wildfire truck that’s going to be stored there. In the summer, during the critical times, there will be three Park District personnel stationed there.”
In an interview Tuesday, Peter Cukor, a resident in Olds’ hills district, disagreed with the council member’s assessment of the proposed station. He said that several factors, including the lack of facilities for firefighting helicopters, would make a real response to a 1991-style fire from the new station inadequate.
“This location clearly could not support what Measure G intended to do,” he said. “For instance, given the terrain up here, a helicopter is an essential element of fighting this kind of fire. This plan doesn’t give us one.”
“Our concern is that the city of Berkeley made a promise to us – to protect us from wildfires – and they haven’t fulfilled it.”
To assure that the new station is in compliance with Measure G, the city, after the approval of the City Council, will seek a “validation action” in the Alameda County Superior Court. Olds said that the action – asking the judge to say it is OK for Measure G monies to be spent on the project – would make impossible any potential lawsuit against the city that might seek to deny Measure G funds for the fire station.
Assistant Fire Chief Dave Orth said Tuesday that the battle plan for large hills fires has evolved considerably since Measure G passed, and that the department was happy with the plans for the new station.
Currently, said Orth, the hills in Alameda and Contra Costa counties are served by a number of Mutual Response Areas, in which several jurisdictions may respond quickly to reports of fire.
“After the fire, one of the early concepts was to put more forces up here so we can respond quickly,” he said. “We still have that powerful force, but it’s responding from a lot of different areas.”
“These things didn’t exist at the time the joint station was being discussed.”
Orth said that fire bombers can reach the East Bay from San Jose and Santa Rosa in 20 minutes, if they are needed.
Olds said that given Oakland and Berkeley’s competing interests in finding a site, the joint-command station was a “pipe dream,” and in any event has proved unnecessary.
“Remember, this was right after the fire,” she said. “We overreacted, like people do after the emergency.”
The draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed station is scheduled to be presented at the October 25 meeting of the Zoning Adjustments Board, after which the public will be invited to comment on it. The City Council will make a decision on whether to seek a “validation action” after the final Environmental Impact Report for the station is approved.