Stepping up Bay Area firestorm readiness as weather heats up again

A huge coalition of East Bay fire, police and other public agencies, collectively known as the Hills Emergency Forum put out a plea today for agencies, businesses and especially citizens to clean up their properties now to stop the spread of urban wildfires.

The Hills Emergency knows that since most major recent fires have been well outside of the central Bay Area, the deadly 1991 Oakland Hills urban firestorm is either ancient history or unknown.

They wanted to remind urban dwellers it can happen here too.

"We can't just fight the fire. We have to try and prevent the fire," said Oakland Fire Department Vegetation Management Supervisor Vince Crudele.

The Hills Emergency Forum, says once a windblown firestorm starts, it can be near impossible to stop until it runs out of things to burn.

So, it's critical that each and every property owner, right now, make their properties as fire safe and resistant as possible.

Whether by the blade, the saw or the goat this is accomplished through vegetation and debris clearance, aggressive tree trimming thinning and reducing roadside fuels.

Example, the median of Skyline Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in the Oakland Hills, is just covered with grass.

Somebody walking by or driving by, throws a cigarette down, could have a fire.

A spark could cause a fire or worse, embers coming from a fire far, far away would land on this and start a major fire.

That's why authorities are on a crash program to get all of this cleaned up by the end of the month.

Otherwise firefighters may have to let structures in areas with high grasses and debris burn.

"There is a high probability that we may not be able to save their home, or we'll start our firefighting activities and suppression at a different location where we do have defensible space," said Crudele.

Even if the fire is miles away, recent wildfires prove that flaming embers can carry for miles and miles.

"But a flaming brand or ember only matters when it lands on a receptive fuel bed. If that ember lands on your property and if your property has been abated, the fuel has been mitigates there, there are not receptive fuel beds there," said Moraga Orinda Fire Department Chief Dave Winnacker.

The threat is so real, firefighters may have to enforce state laws, which they reluctantly do, especially if neighbors complain.

"We do a civil notice of violation with a 30 day notice to correct it. We come back and do a re-inspection.

There are re-inspection fees and penalties.

Eventually we would go to an abatement contract and lien on the property. "But we hope we can gain people's compliance through knowledge," said Crudele.

Or, if necessary, through enforcement, fines and possible loss of insurance.