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‘We feel like a neglected child’: Residents in fire-hazardous hills say city too slow in clearing brush

on October 15, 2021

Dying trees, withering leaves, flammable plants. They fill in spaces around and between homes on East Richmond’s hills, an ember away from fueling disaster. 

On these slopes east of Interstate 80 lie dense neighborhoods such as May Valley, El Sobrante Hills, and Castro Heights. In 2009, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection assessment flagged the area  as a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” 

​​Every year, the Richmond Fire Department inspects vegetation in the area and urges homeowners to clear out dead and problematic plants and create defensible space around their houses to prevent the spread of fire. However, with a limited budget and two out of its five inspectors on leave this year, the department doesn’t have the resources to get to every area. 

“We have more inspections to do than we have inspectors to do them,” said Micheal Smith, the department’s interim chief. But the inspections are only advisory, Smith noted, so the department relies on homeowners to be responsible and vigilant. 

“We do contact them and notify them of the conditions and recommend that they take care of that,” Smith said. 

If the department had more inspectors and more funding, Smith said it could do more to mitigate the danger and to enforce compliance. 

Meanwhile, junipers, pampas grass, and loads of dried plants are turning people’s backyards into potential torches, one after the next.

Large wildfires have crept fairly close to Richmond in the past few decades. In July 2020, a 298-acre brush fire broke out in Rodeo, which is about 10 miles north of Richmond. And about 12 miles to the south, the Oakland Hills were devastated by a wildfire in October 1991 that burned about 1,500 acres, destroyed more than 3,000 structures, and killed 25 people. 

In recent years, higher temperatures and longer dry periods from climate change have posed an even greater threat to Richmond. In the past month, the city has been plagued by power outages, mostly because of dirt on poles and wires that turns into mud in the rain, but also because of lightning, a common wildfire spark. During a Sept. 10 storm, Richmond residents were in the dark for an extended period as the National Weather Service recorded at least 110 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the Bay Area. 

Residents in Richmond’s hills are concerned about the wildfire risk in their neighborhoods and the lack of inspections. Some say they need more support from the city. 

“We feel like a neglected child who is abandoned,” said Soheila Bana, who lives in Richmond’s El Sobrante Hills. “Many of the neighbors have junipers or other flammable trees. They’re not aware that they need to cut them, and the city of Richmond is not doing a good job at that.” 

May Valley resident Marilyn Sarrni believes the ill-managed public spaces pose an even greater threat to the area. 

“The city is not maintaining the public open spaces particularly well,” Sarrni said. “There are dead and dying trees right on the edge of the road. If one of those trees starts burning and falls on the road, then the evacuation route is cut off. What are we going to do?”

Emergency preparation and planning is underway, according to Jim Yoke, the manager of Richmond’s Office of Emergency Services. 

“Everybody wants everything done right now, and they are right to be concerned,” Yoke said. “This requires planning and training and is not just a simple kind of activity.”

As the government struggles with wildfire prevention, neighborhood groups are preparing for what could come. Bana, the co-founder of local advocacy group 94803 Emergency Preparedness Alliance, believes cross-border collaboration is the key.

The organization is part of the East Bay Hills Wildfire Prevention and Vegetation Management Joint Powers Agency, a grassroots effort to create an agency to reduce the threat of wildfire throughout the East Bay.

Working with other communities makes sense, Bana said, noting that “wildfire doesn’t know any borders.”

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