A tragic fire is an opportunity to revise our fire safety policies

When a warehouse in Oakland burned to the ground, killing 36 young people on December 2, 2016, we learned that the City of Oakland is not inspecting many buildings for fire safety, as required by law.  In fact, this particular warehouse had never been inspected because it wasn’t even on the database for such inspections.  If it had been inspected, “they would have seen what visitors and former residents called a death trap and a tinder box: piles of wood, shingles and old furniture, extension cords and often-sparking electrical wires running willy-nilly throughout the structure, welding equipment and propane tanks scattered about — the kind of fire code violations that could have led inspectors to shutter the building immediately.”  (East Bay Times, 12/8/16)

This tragic loss of young lives is an opportunity for Oakland to examine its priorities with respect to fire safety.  Oakland, like most cities, does not have unlimited resources to address every public safety issue.  Therefore, it must set priorities and in this case, Oakland needs to refocus its efforts where serious fire safety issues exist and where genuine economic need requires the city’s help.  Specifically, we should stop destroying harmless trees and spend our limited resources on identifying and repairing unsafe living conditions that create fire hazards.

Our letter (below) to the elected and city officials of Oakland asking them to revise their priorities regarding fire safety, speaks for itself.  If you agree with us about this issue, please write your own letter to your district council representative if you live in Oakland.

December 9, 2016

Dear Mayor Schaaf, (officeofthemayor@oaklandnet.com)

The recent fire in a warehouse that killed 36 young people should be a wakeup call for city officials who say they are concerned about mitigating fire hazards.  The City of Oakland wasted 10 years defending an indefensible plan to clear cut trees in the Oakland hills, based on the claim that it would reduce fire hazards.  After cancellation of the FEMA grants that would have funded that project, Oakland has made a contractual commitment to spend $800,000 to develop a new plan for “vegetation management.”

Mosswood Recreation Center was gutted by fire on November 26, 2016
Mosswood Recreation Center was gutted by fire on November 26, 2016

Meanwhile, we have had many major fires of residential properties in the flat lands where trees played no role in the fires.  On November 26, 2016, the recreation center at Mosswood Park burned to the ground, just 50 feet away from a huge eucalyptus tree that was not ignited by that fire.

Trees around the Mosswood Recreation Center were not ignited by the fire, including this huge eucalyptus tree.
Trees around the Mosswood Recreation Center were not ignited by the fire, including this huge eucalyptus tree.

And last Friday, a warehouse that should not have been rented to tenants and should not have been used to stage huge parties, burned to the ground.   Although many complaints had been lodged about that warehouse, no inspections or code enforcement corrected the many safety violations.  The media also informs us that there are many other warehouses in Oakland being used illegally with potentially unsafe conditions.  We also understand that the City of Oakland does not have the staff needed to conduct inspections or ensure enforcement of building codes.

In other words, when it comes to fire safety, the City of Oakland is focusing on the wrong issues in the wrong places.  Residents in the hills have the financial resources to create defensible space around their homes.  Young people in the flatlands, do not have the resources to pay for safe housing.  This is both a safety AND an equity issue.

Therefore, the City of Oakland should redirect its limited resources where serious safety issues exist and genuine economic need requires the City’s help.  I am writing to ask that the contract to develop a “vegetation management plan” be cancelled and the money be spent to conduct inspections and to subsidize the mitigation of real fire hazards.

 Thank you for your consideration.

Oakland, CA

Cc:  Councilman Dan Kalb (dkalb@oaklandnet.com) , Fire Chief Theresa DeLoach Reed (tdeloachreed@oaklandnet.com), Assistant to the Chief Angela Robinson Pinon (arobinsonpinon@oaklandnet.com)