Fireworks spark crackdown in the East Bay hills

Fireworks, especially dangerous now, are sparking a crackdown in the Oakland-Berkeley hills. 

People who head up there for nighttime views will find some turnouts blocked and risk a citation for stopping.

Officials say it's been a problem all summer, with people drawn outdoors by the weather and pandemic, and some of them reckless about fire danger.

"We are a ticking time bomb up here, it's not a matter of if but when, and we have already had eight to ten fires up here since June 1," said Michael Hunt of the Oakland Fire Department.

Hunt was among representatives of several East Bay agencies expressing concern at a briefing on Wednesday. 

He noted California remains overwhelmed with dozens of wildfires.  

"Any threat created by a fire on this hillside would only harm our departments, the residents, and the state mutual aid system," said Hunt.

A cell phone video, making the rounds, shows several people around a bonfire while another person sets off fireworks at a vista point on Grizzly Peak.

"Well it's absolutely selfish, a selfish thing to do, and we're all on edge," said Berkeley hills resident Susan Muscarella, whose home was destroyed in the hills firestorm almost 30 years ago. "It's absolutely terrifying and I don't know why anybody would think about doing that, especially now."

This week, Berkeley's City Council approved a resolution calling for a unified approach, and for callers reporting firework activity to be automatically routed as high priority, instead of non-emergency.

Oakland Fire Lt. Carleton Lightfoot recounted some of those calls: "I hear people hanging out on Grizzly Peak in spite of curfew and no one should be up there, I hear fireworks, can you  go up and investigate and ensure that there's not a fire?"

Grizzly Peak and Skyline Boulevards are popular corridors for gatherings, to enjoy nature, panoramic views, and late-night partying.

Smoking and grilling are banned, and Alameda County generally outlaws fireworks.

Visitors expressed shock that anyone would set them off in such a woodsy landscape, with its winding roads.

"Bad idea, fireworks late at night, no surveillance, it's crazy, and imagine evacuating at night," said one young man, enjoying the vista with friends.

Since the activity comes after dark, police plan to enforce "no parking" at about 9 turn-outs, not only with signs and traffic cones at entrances, but extra patrols seven days a week.

"We don't want people to stop and park and have the behavior that leads to danger," said Officer Johnna Watson of the Oakland Police Department.

"We cannot forget the 1991 hills fire that claimed 25 lives and thousands of homes."

Because the area is a mix of jurisdictions, enforcement will come from several cities, plus East Bay Regional Parks, and the UC Berkeley Police.

"It just takes one bad actor to start a big fire," noted Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb.

"We have to make sure we enforce what the rules are, and not just have rules, they don't mean much if we're not enforcing them."

Frequent visitors were happy to hear of any added fire prevention.

"We've already been experiencing the impacts of the fires around us with all the horrible air quality," said one woman.

Added her friend, "If fire starts up here in the hills, it's going to travel all the way down, and I'm not trying to leave, you feel me?"

Berkeley's Assistant Fire Chief Keith May offered a sobering historical note, looking back on the devastating 2001 firestorm.

"There was a fire here, bigger than that if you can imagine," said May.

"In 1923, someone dropped a cigarette up here and with the Diablo winds and low humidity that fire burned all the way down to Shattuck Avenue."   

Officials expressed the hope that by raising awareness, they won't have to issue many citations for parking between 9 pm and 6 a.m.