Brookwood Road: Where Miscommunication Meets Fire Prevention Measures

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(Tristan Shaughnessy, Photographer)
A section of Brookwood Road after the city’s vegetation removal, compared to a 2019 Google Maps image.

    In early May, Orinda’s public works department removed trees and brush along Brookwood Road. Before, the street’s bordering freeway was obscured by a wall of foliage. Now, Sean Gerrish, a Brookwood resident, said the neighborhood has a “panoramic view of Highway 24,” and homeowners are not happy.
    According to Larry Theis, Orinda’s public works director, the city decided to clear the vegetation after an inspection by the Moraga-Orinda Fire District (MOFD) in April. The district said the property, which the city owns, was not in compliance with its fire code because of dead trees and other combustible materials being near the road.
    Theis also said Brookwood’s proximity to Highway 24 put it at an increased risk of vehicle-started fires, like the 25-acre brush fire that happened next to the highway because of an engine malfunction in 2017.
    More than four million acres of California, an area bigger than Connecticut, went ablaze in 2020 according to California’s Department of Fire and Forestry, making it the state’s worst fire season to date. And 2021 may prove equally challenging, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that high temperatures and dry conditions could possibly cause early, intense summer fires throughout the state. 
    While acknowledging the importance of fire prevention, some Brookwood residents disapprove of how the city handled the vegetation next to their homes. Multiple people said they were not given any notice of the city’s plan for the road until it was underway, something that Theis confirmed, saying that only one Brookwood resident was notified in advance.
    Freeman Levinrad and Frances Valdez, a couple living on Brookwood, said, “We definitely commend the city for taking proactive steps on fire mitigation. It just seems like this went a little too far, and it would have been better for them to notify us and have a dialogue with us before they did this amount of work.”
    Acknowledging the lack of communication, Theis said that the city will provide nearby residents a “courtesy notice” in future fuel abatement activities, telling them when the projects will occur, the scope of the work being done and its projected short and long term effects. Yet, Theis said it is unlikely that inhabitants will get more than a heads up: “The city does not have much choice in terms of meeting compliance with the fire code, so I do not expect future notices will be structured to be an open solicitation for resident 
input.”
    Besides feeling out of the loop, a group of Orindans told the City Council during public comment on May 11 that its actions on Brookwood Road, while addressing fire concerns, created new safety hazards.
    Constituents, like Chris Radovich, said the trees on Brookwood provided a natural crash barrier to highway traffic, but now there is only a chain-link fence to stop cars from potentially veering into the community.
    Inhabitants also said the neighborhood is noticeably louder, which could be a problem when people walk along the road. Since there are no sidewalks on Brookwood, they said distinguishing cars on the road from those on the highway is an important safety issue.  
    To address these concerns, Theis said the city is exploring the possibility of building a concrete sound wall. But he also said that any project would take time, having to start as an unfunded initiative and work its way through the capital improvement process before any construction could actually begin.
    Some residents, however, think the city needs to act now.
    “I have a lot of unfunded projects I want to do – I just don’t have the funds for them,” said Levinrad. “A sound barrier would be a solution, but it needs to be on an actual timeline, not something where it could never happen.”

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