By Walter Geist
We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the devastating Oakland-Berkeley hills firestorm. It is appropriate to remind the citizens of Berkeley of the danger posed by another firestorm and the promised protection implied with the passage of Measure G.
On July 21, 1992, Michael Brown, city manager, presented for council action the "Fire Protection Bond Measure.” The recommendations submitted to the full Berkeley City Council were based upon the findings of a council committee that included current Mayor Shirley Dean, who was at that time a council member. The recommendations included a proposed new fire station that “…could be built on property owned by the East Bay Regional Park District located at Grizzly Peak, Centennial and Golf Course Road. This would provide for a quick emergency response into the Wild land/Urban intermix areas of Berkeley, Oakland, (UC Berkeley) property, and EBRPD.” The proposed new station would provide for, among other facilities, “Storage for 9-10 emergency vehicles…offices for Fire Prevention Inspectors…staging area for Mutual Aid resources and a helicopter landing site.”
The Fire Protection Bond Measure was approved by the full City Council and was submitted to the voters on Nov. 3, 1992 in the form of Measure G.
The text of Measure G: “Shall the City of Berkeley incur general obligation bonded indebtedness of $55,000,000 principal to increase the level of fire protection by constructing a jointly funded, multi-jurisdictional fire station, seismically retrofitting city buildings which house public safety personnel and equipment, replacing water mains throughout Berkeley, seismically retrofitting other City buildings if feasible and paying bond issuance costs?”
The ballot argument in favor of Measure G started off as follows:“Just imagine how Berkeley would look today if the wind had shifted. Last year the Oakland/Berkeley hills were laid to waste by a devastating firestorm. Over 3,000 homes were lost in Oakland and 69 were lost in Berkeley.
Those numbers could have easily been reversed if the wind had shifted toward the north.”
Measure G passed overwhelmingly.
While both the wording of Measure G and the initial argument in favor of it seem to stress the importance of the new fire station, less than 4 percent of the $55 million was allocated for the new fire station in the proposed Fire Protection Bond Measure approved by City Council. Over 70 percent of the funds were allocated to the repair and replacement of water mains, which, while necessary, isn’t as easy to sell to the voters as an increased level of fire protection in light of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills firestorm.
Now, the current administration proposes to use the Measure G funding to replace the existing hills Fire Station No.7 with a new station to be located approximately three blocks from the existing station. The location of the replacement station was allegedly determined based upon response times to the perimeters of the area currently serviced by the old station and not response times to potential wild land fires. The new station will be staffed with the same 3-person crew. The location of the new fire station, its staffing and size are designed to deal with the same threats as the existing station. This solution does not adequately address the very real danger of wild land/urban intermixed fires and does not provide a material increase in the level of fire protection.
One would like to assume that the council committee’s recommendations in 1992 were based upon a need and not a whim. The purpose, location and magnitude of the station as recommended by the council committee in 1992 and as described above clearly were intended to address the potential danger of another Oakland-Berkeley Hills firestorm.
At a public meeting on Sept. 19, Fire Chief Reginald Garcia characterized the magnitude of the fire station as recommended by the council committee in 1992 as a “pipe dream.” This may or may not be an accurate characterization; however the citizens of Berkeley voted funding for Measure G to the tune of $55 million or approximately $500 for every man, woman and child in the city of Berkeley, largely on the basis of a need for wild land fire protection. That’s what we voted for and that’s what we want. Anything less is totally unacceptable.