MOFD’s Residential Chipper Program to Return Mid September

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(Kathy Enzerink, Photographer)
Residents must hire a private company, like this one, until the Moraga-Orinda Fire District’s free service returns.

    Orinda’s popular residential wood chipping program, put on hold for the summer, will return as early as Sept. 15.
    The program was halted June 15 to allow the Moraga-Orinda Fire District (MOFD) to have its four full-time fire mitigation crew focus on property inspections designed to eliminate fire hazards, such as trees overhanging houses and overgrown shrubbery, according to MOFD board President Steven Danzinger.
    However, reaction to stopping the free service for the summer months was not well received by politicians and residents.
    “The City of Orinda was very disappointed in MOFD’s decision to stop the chipper program over the summer. It has been a huge help in encouraging residents to clean up their properties to help with fire prevention,” said Orinda Mayor Darlene Gee.
    Resident Melanie Light, chair of the Orinda Firewise Council who writes fire safety articles in this newspaper, said the chipper program was put on hold because the three board members who voted against it are in the back pockets of the firefighter’s union.
    “It was voted down in a block vote by the directors whose election campaigns were funded by the firefighters union: Steven Danziger, Michael Donner and Greg Baitx,” said Light.
    However, Danzinger, who cast the deciding vote, said catering to the interests of firefighters, and possibly hiring more of them with chipper funds, had nothing to do with the program’s hiatus.
    “They’ve got two more years on their contract,” said Danzinger. “We are committed to true fire mitigation. We want the community to be as fire safe as possible. It has nothing to do with politics.”
    According to Danzinger, the main reason the chipper program was put on hold was because it had become too popular and MOFD could not afford to run it and do inspections during the summer months. For 2020, MOFD budgeted $33,000 for chipping and spent $50,000. The chipping budget when the program resumes is $100,000, Danzinger said.
    He also points out that two main sources of income for MOFD besides property taxes – fees for ambulance transports and home inspections for new homes and remodels – are down significantly. This is due to people not wanting to go to the hospital because of COVID-19 and a slowdown in house building and remodeling, also due to the pandemic.
    MOFD ambulances also respond to traffic accidents along Highway 24, but with less driving there are fewer accidents as well.
    In 2021 it’s projected that MOFD will generate $521,000 from ambulance rides, down from $1.8 million in 2020, and $74,000 on home inspections, down from $400,000.
    As for MOFD having a $1 million surplus that could have been tapped to retain the chipper program this summer, Danzinger admits that’s true. But he points out that the district is looking at a $1.5 million shortfall next year and will have to dip into its rainy-day fund to cover the difference.
    One aspect of the chipper program Danzinger believes residents don’t fully understand is the number of moving parts involved in implementing just one chipper appointment. “It isn’t just sending the chipper out there and everything is done,” said Danzinger.
    First there has to be an inspection of the debris to be picked up by one of MOFD’s fire mitigation staffers – no tree stumps or other large debris are allowed. And it’s not just for one resident — four are supposed to go in at a time.
    Once the debris to be chipped gets the okay, then the wood has to be brought to the curb by residents – MOFD is not going into backyards. Inevitably, this causes neighbors who were not included to add their own stuff to the chipper pile, some of it not allowable, or to complain about not being included.
    After chipping is completed, the chips are supposed to be “broadcast” back to the property where they originated, but many residents don’t want them messing up their lawns, etc. In this case, MOFD has to bring a truck out to collect the chips and find a place to deposit them. For now, Miramonte High School is allowing them to be dumped behind the baseball diamond for weed abatement.
    Despite all the hoops, the chipper program is a winner with Orindans. “It’s a free program — everyone loves free,” said Danzinger who points out that renting a chipper for private use is about $200. “It’s not an expensive item to rent,” especially if other residents chip in.
    Although 190 tons of debris were chipped last year, Danzinger said it won’t make a big difference if Orinda and Moraga experience a firestorm. “It’s only part of a fire prevention program.”
    Meanwhile, Danzinger said he is more concerned about progress on fire inspections. They are not going so well. As of mid July, of the 1,528 parcels inspected, 348 failed. MOFD has three to four years to inspect 14,000 parcels district-wide.
    One idea floated by Fire Chief Dave Winnacker to help fund fire mitigation efforts is to follow the lead of the Southern Marin Fire District, a department MOFD is often compared with because it has similar terrain and housing density.
    In southern Marin, residents pay an annual $75 parcel tax for fire prevention efforts and as a result have 35 full-time fire prevention staffers. “We have four,” said Danzinger who adds that Winnacker is only suggesting a parcel tax for five years. If enacted, such a tax would raise $1 million a year for MOFD.

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