City, Fire District Gear up for Fire Season as Inspections Loom

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(Ken Light, Photographer)
The Moraga-Orinda Fire District chipper crew works corner of Via Farallon and La Cuesta.

    As fears about the upcoming fire season rose like summer temperatures, local leaders took two major steps recently to address an outcry over fire safety and preparedness – or lack of it.  
    The Moraga-Orinda Fire District (MOFD) saw unprecedented public participation April 29 when the board was considering hiring two more firefighters. More than 40 people showed up to express concerns about preparedness, 20 people sent in letters and 375 people signed a petition asking that more tax dollars be spent on fire safety, according to Melanie Light, chair of the Orinda Firewise Council, a prevention group.
    The MOFD board decided not to hire more firefighters, marking a victory for those who wanted the district to make prevention a priority over hiring.
    Then on May 5, the Orinda City Council unanimously approved creating a council subcommittee which will meet quarterly with the MOFD board, and Moraga officials if they chose to be included, to address fire prevention. It represented the first time the three entities could sit across the table to address fire prevention together.
    Steve Danziger, MOFD board president, said the decision not to hire more firefighters was based on the potential affects the Covid-19 pandemic could have on the district’s budget.  
    “We felt given the financial situation right now, a lot of it is unknown. It’s not a responsible time to add staff,” Danziger said, adding that hiring the additional two firefighters would cost the district $1 million a year. MOFD’s budget accounts for 57 authorized firefighters with 17 on the job on any given day.
    Light, who chairs the consortium of neighborhood organizations focused on fire reduction, said more needs to be done to prevent fires given that a recent city survey found fire safety to be the top concern. 
    There needs to be an education program, a community clean-up day, signs limiting parking on narrow streets on high fire hazard days, and promotion of fuel-reduction programs, she said.
    “The fire district has a very small fire prevention budget relative to its overall budget,” Light said.
    Danziger said although 90 percent of its budget goes to pay firefighters, the fire district has managed to put significant resources toward prevention. For example, he said, the district this year hired three full-time fuel mitigation specialists and a crew supervisor.
The district also hired Fire Marshall Jeff Isaacs who, thanks to a $15,000 state grant, is working on developing an interactive website to provide fire safety outreach.
    Danziger said probably the most important fire prevention idea is Chief Dave Winnacker’s proposals to change the fire code, which among other things would set strict rules on building and landscaping. Some of Winnacker’s proposals have irked residents who fear they would dramatically change the character of cities or be too costly.
    “Rightly so people are questioning if we have to go this far and the chief believes we do,” said Danziger. “You could be the most firewise homeowner possible but if your neighbor’s house is overgrown, it’s not going to matter if you get a firestorm. We need the community to buy in.’’
    Danziger said the creation of the Orinda/Moraga/MOFD subcommittee will help open communication and build that buy-in.
    A city report announcing the subcommittee pointed out, “Virtually every property owner in the city will need to analyze their property in accordance with current standards and implement best practices by next year. An extensive outreach and education program will be required. MOFD is planning such an effort, but the importance of this requires the city to use its means to make this summer season and the next the most successful ever.”  
    Indeed, Winnacker said no matter how many firefighters the district has in its ranks, the key to prevention is what homeowners are willing to do. This includes trimming grass, cutting tree limbs, thinning brush and clearing brush. 
    “Now we need people to convert awareness into action,” Winnacker said.

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