Election Section

Fire Station Sparks More Controversy

Friday May 14, 2004

The commentary piece written by Neighbors for Fire Safety (“Fire Station Foes Ignore History, Wildfire Fighting Reality,” Daily Planet, May 7-10) is a dangerously misleading attempt to disguise their true goal of using taxpayers’ bond money to fund a project to serve their neighborhood rather than protect the entire city from the next wildfire. Time after time proponents of this project said at public hearings that they wanted this station as close to them as possible in case of a house fire or medical emergency. Opponents of the plan were trying to get the city to build a real wildland station on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, one that would protect the entire city, not just Fire District 7. Berkeley citizens should fully realize and agree that “opposition” and “dissent” are NOT anti-civic. Indeed, the right to dissent and be fairly heard is one of the foundations of our country’s democracy, even though such activity is being misrepresented nationally as well as locally. 

Regarding history: A visit to the memorial to the 1991 Oakland hills fire provides some facts that the Neighbors for Fire Safety chose to ignore. This memorial, located on Old Tunnel Road, has several exhibits that document the history of wildfires in the hills. These exhibits tell us that since 1900 12 out of 14 wildfires have started in Oakland. That is why we, the opponents of this current project, have repeatedly called for the city to build the wild land fire station as originally planned on Grizzly Peak Boulevard somewhere between Centennial Drive and Fish Ranch Road. The Neighbors for Fire Safety can characterize the current project however they like, but the reality is that the currently proposed Hills Fire Station is an excessively fancy new local station for Betty Olds’ district and is not even well-sited to serve that purpose, let alone fight wildfires—unless the fires start on the golf course in Tilden Park! Our city and its neighbors do have a real problem in the threat of wildfires. But spending $5-6 million to replace an old station and add one brush truck in northeast Berkeley is not an effective solution to this very real threat. This Hills Fire Station project is not a serious response to the threat of wildfires. A quick look at the EIR reveals how this site was chosen. The one essential criterion for an acceptable site is defined in the EIR as having “a four-minute response time within Fire District 7.” (That is the same territory as Betty Olds’ election District 6.) Does this sound like an appropriate criterion for siting a wildland station to protect all of Berkeley? In fact, a Tilden Park official, who was a firefighter in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, said of the project, “It’s a political solution to an emotional problem.” 

People are afraid of fire, and rightly so. There is real danger and that is why we voted for Measure G and a “real” wildland station. The “real” fire station that Measure G was to help pay for would not have replaced an existing facility. Rather, it would have been an additional station on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, either at Centennial Drive or at Grizzly Flats. The new station was to be 13,000 square feet., house up to 11 engines and a staff of 20-25 and have a helicopter landing site. Berkeley’s contribution was to be $2.5 million, the land and staff were to be donated by the Park District, and Oakland was to partner with money, staff and equipment. Instead, Berkeley will now spend $5-6 million to house two of its engines and the same staff of three firefighters that currently work out of the existing Station #7, 3 blocks away. So for more than twice the money we get about one-sixth the protection against wildfires. This makes no sense! Imagine if the measure on the 1992 ballot had read “Shall Berkeley spend $5-6 million to house two engines in Betty Olds’ district and give Park employees a place to sleep 0-15 nights per year?” Clearly voters would have rejected such nonsense. 

Regarding the review process: Yes, there have been a number of meetings over the past several years to review this project. Comments were strictly limited to three minutes per person at the start of each meeting while city officials had an unlimited amount of time to present their case with no opportunity for citizen rebuttal, even when city staff either used misleading statements or worse. Thus, the so-called “public process” regarding the Hills Fire Station was more like a “kangaroo court.” After all, with the city acting as applicant, judge and jury, the result of any meeting was a forgone conclusion. 

Providing adequate protection to Fire District 7 can be accomplished for far less than the city is proposing to spend, especially since the current fire house receives less than one call per day and two thirds of those are for medical emergencies. Why is it that bureaucrats feel the need to spend all the money in their budgets, even when the problem to be addressed can be solved for much less thereby reducing the burden on taxpayers? Do not be misled into thinking that projects funded with bond money do not have a large impact on your property taxes. To see how much such projects are costing you, just look at the line item on your property tax bill called “Voter Approved Indebtedness, City of Berkeley.” It’s time for both the city and the Neighbors for Fire Safety to cease their deceptions and for our elected officials to implement more fiscally prudent solutions for fire safety that benefit the entire city of Berkeley.