OAKLAND -- Concerned residents and members of the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District met on Monday at the Hiller Highlands Country Club to discuss the launching of an effort to renew the ballot measure that created the district in 2003. The current measure is due to expire in 2014.
The Oakland firestorm occurred on Oct. 20, 1991, ravaging the hills, claiming 25 lives, and destroying more than 3,500 homes. The fire was started by a grass fire in the Berkeley hills that had not been completely extinguished the day before.
"It was the perfect storm," said Theresa Reed, the chief of the Oakland Fire Department. "There were dry conditions, excessive vegetation and high winds (known as the diablo winds)."
Narrow winding roads and overgrown vegetation hindered firefighters' access to the area.
The assessment district includes the wooded areas throughout the Oakland hills from the Berkeley to the San Leandro borders.
It is estimated that 75 percent to 90 percent of the current residents within the district did not reside in the hills at the time of the firestorm and may not understand the district's importance, according to Barry Pilger, a representative of the district advisory committee.
"We know disasters well," Pilger said. "We had an earthquake (Loma Prieta in 1989) and a fire two years apart. People that don't remember need to be ... (reminded) by you."
"It's a small amount of money to pay for security," said Sue Piper, co-chair of the Keep Oakland Firesafe 2013 campaign effort. Piper, a survivor of the firestorm in Hiller Highlands, remembers the events of that day vividly. "Surviving the disaster and picking up the pieces afterward is an awful experience."
"This is an insurance policy," said District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb. "Insurance is never perfect, but if you prepare yourselves, if a fire happens, it will be a small one. The district itself may not be perfect, but by in large, it gets the job done. Let's not blow it."
Ken Benson, co-chair of the Keep Oakland Firesafe 2013 campaign, said: "Fire is a tough enemy, but it is an enemy you can plan for. Hopefully, we can continue the process of trying to clear the vegetation from roadways so we can get out, and firefighters can get in, and we can slow the spread of the fire, and be able to place fire- fighters in strategic locations and fight the fire."
District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf will take the lead on writing the ballot measure. It is anticipated that residents will vote by a mail-in ballot in October.
"This is a great opportunity to get involved with something personal with your neighbors. You will have their undivided attention," said Schaaf, referring to the fact that there are no candidate elections scheduled for this election cycle.
The district manages $1.7 million, collected annually from the biannual property tax bill. Single-family homes pay an annual tax of $65, while multiple-unit buildings pay slightly less, and all others, including undeveloped land, parks and commercial enterprises, are taxed based on a formula calculating the benefits they receive from the district.
Money collected must be spent within the district. The majority of the funds collected is spent on vegetation management of city owned property from roadside clearing to the yearly goat grazing. Other benefits include the roving fire patrols on high fire danger days, public education and outreach, and roadside chipping services at no additional cost to district residents.
The district does not pay for the fire safety inspections of private property. These inspections are paid for from the city's general budget.
Lin Barron, a board member for the Friends of Montclair Railroad Trail, reported that when her group has tried to partner with the fire department on projects, she has been told that they are understaffed.
"I am frustrated because I pay the assessment and I have the volunteers ready," Barron said. "There needs to be more transparency about how the money is spent."
David Mix, a Montclair resident, also has concerns about the workings of the district.
"I'm certainly not against the suppression of fire," Mix said, "but we don't know how the money is being spent."
Mix asserted that the Oakland Unified School District and the Peralta Community College District have not paid the assessment despite the fact that both institutions have property in the district.
"I like where I live," Benson said. "I couldn't imagine living anywhere else, but I couldn't image living here without vegetation management."
For more information about the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, visit www.keepoaklandfiresafe.org.