Hills residents take particular pride in their rustic, bucolic locale, their views and the fact that the urban downtown is roughly 10 minutes away -- but can feel like a world away for anyone in Joaquin Miller Park, Redwood Regional Park or Roberts Regional Recreation Area.
But with that appreciation of the city's natural beauty comes an acute awareness and worry about fire. Any spark, any fire, no matter how small or minor -- such as the acre fire in Joaquin Miller Park on July 4 that destroyed the Sinawik Cabin once used by Girl Scouts -- triggers fear and anxiety. Residents are all too aware of the October 1991 firestorm that ravaged the hills, killing 25 people and damaging more than 3,000 homes.
To avoid a recurrence, property owners in the hills afterward agreed to tax themselves about $65 a year to form a Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, which raises about $1.8 million a year for wildfire-prevention measures, including cutting of brush to clear emergency escape routes, removal of dead trees, roadside mowing, goat grazing and fire patrols on days of high-fire risk.
But the district sunsets at the end of this year, so about 40,000 residents must decide by Nov. 13 whether to renew the tax and continue the district. The district includes the wooded areas throughout the Oakland hills from the Berkeley to San Leandro borders. Measure A, as it is known, is a mail ballot conducted by the City of Oakland and requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
The special tax would be levied for another 10 years until 2023-24 on each taxable parcel of private property, with parcel owners required to pay the $78 annual assessment. Condominiums, multifamily units and undeveloped parcels would be taxed at lower rates, and public and nonprofit properties such as those owned by the East Bay Regional Park District and churches would be exempt.
Money collected must be spent within the district, with the majority spent on vegetation management of city-owned property, from roadside clearing to goat grazing. The district does not pay for the fire-safety inspections of private property; those are paid from the city's general budget.
The district does have an oversight committee to see where and how the money is spent.
Since the inception of the district, the hills haven't had a repeat of the firestorm or anything close to it, which supporters of Measure A say is directly related to the wildfire-prevention measures and a key reason that voters should renew the tax. Opponents point out that the surrounding communities of Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito and San Leandro -- which have no wildfire district -- also haven't had a major fire in that same time.
But we argue that Oakland is unique for its huge amount of open space -- one of the largest among West Coast cities -- and that space is vulnerable to fire danger, unlike the smaller parks in the other surrounding communities.
At an informative forum held by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 25, we listened to the pros and cons of Measure A from a variety of panelists, including District 1 Councilman Dan Kalb, Ken Benson of KeepOaklandFiresafe, Oakland fire Inspector Vince Crudele and longtime Oaklanders Ralph Kanz and David Mix, who voiced their concerns and opposition.
Kalb said the district's measures "substantially reduce the risk of fires" in the hills, and he fears that if Measure A is rejected, the funds raised by the district would not only disappear but that the hills would have to compete and lose with all the other priorities in the city -- chiefly, funds to hire more police. Kanz was concerned about the two native plants affected by the prevention measures. He called on the city to conduct an environmental impact report and cited a need for a long-term management plan. Kalb assured that the city will conduct an environmental impact report.
We agree that an EIR is long overdue and see some validity in Mix's contention that the district provides a "false security" that a firestorm wouldn't be repeated. No preventive plan is absolutely foolproof, but we agree with the need to continue the district. We note that Measure A is endorsed not only by Mayor Jean Quan and Councilmembers Kalb, Libby Schaaf, Desley Brooks, Larry Reid and Rebecca Kaplan but also fire Chief Teresa Reed. It's also endorsed by a variety of hills organizations, including the Montclair Village Association, Friends of Sausal Creek, Friends of Joaquin Miller Park, Crestmont Homeowners Association, Metropolitan Horsemen's Association and the Hiller Highlands V Homeowners Association.
If the district is dismantled, we are concerned about the loss of funding and worry that an already financially strapped Fire Department would not be able to perform all of the measures. We see the district as playing a positive, preventive role. We need it as necessary insurance for the hills -- at a cost less than a Carl's Jr. bacon cheeseburger every day, as Benson pointed out at the forum.
We urge a "yes" vote on Measure A.