Hot weather sparks fire safety reminders

June 20, 2011 11:54:50 PM PDT
Warm temperatures spark interest in fire safety, especially in the Oakland Hills as the 20th anniversary of 1991's massive firestorm approaches. One community has even turned to animals for a little help.

It's become an annual tradition in the hills high above Oakland's Parkwoods Condominiums -- goats hard at work, clearing the brush that could pose a threat as fire season gets under way.

"They are working hard, eating away," said Parkwoods resident Vanessa Tiegs. "The weeds have gone down. Of course it keeps our territory a little safer from fire hazards and things like that."

In the 1991 firestorm, the Parkwoods were the first of 3,700 homes to burn. This year, fire season is starting late due to the heavy spring rains. But fire officials say despite what the sign says, the time is now for residents to get ready.

"Last fire season was very uneventful, which worked in our favor, but at the same time people might let their guard down and think, hey, last season things were pretty slow, this season might be slow also," said Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Erik Logan. "But with the heavy rains and the increase in vegetation, people really have to be on their toes and maintain the defensible space around their homes, a 30-foot clearance to their property lines, making sure all low-lying are above the roofs and the roofs are cleared out. It gives their house a better chance of survival."

Due to budget cuts at the state and local level, firefighters may be a bit short-handed this summer. CAL FIRE has already announced they will cut staffing on their wildfire rigs from four firefighters to three.

Oakland Fire has not cut staffing on their engines, but may have no funding for extra fire patrols when the fire danger reaches the high stage.

Walnut Creek community wants the cows back

Hot weather and tall grass are not an encouraging combination. In Walnut Creek Monday night, some people are worried about the threat of wildfire and they're even more nervous now that they have lost one of their most trusted sources of fire prevention.

Usually around this time a herd of cows would have eaten four to five-foot tall grass down to the ground, but a liability issue forced them out and now the grass is at a record height.

"The concern is the cows are not grazing for the first time in anyone's memory," said Walnut Creek resident Frank McCormick.

When the cows left, the grass kept growing and the threat of fire became a serious concern for residents of the Summit Ridge neighborhood in Walnut Creek.

"This gives you some idea of how high the grass is. It's roughly four to five feet high," said McCormick.

Contra Costa County firefighters also noticed the potential danger since they know how fire races up hill. The community is at the top of a hill and it gets windy up there.

"It's very serious. In that neighborhood we have a lot of shake that is right on the sides of those buildings and obviously of you get any kind of significant burn in that area, the structures are threatened," said Contra Costa County Fire Capt. Terry Newberry.

For more than 20 years a herd of cattle has grazed and protected 178 acres of the Acalanes Ridge open space, until at least two hikers were attacked by cows.

"There was one that was very severe. Somebody ended up in the hospital for several days," said Walnut Creek public service director Heather Ballinger.

The city cleared fire breaks around the hilltop community, but still, 137 residents are petitioning to bring the cows back. The city also wants to hire a herd of goats to munch seven acres for about $6,000. So why spend tax dollars on goats when a rancher was paying the city $2,000 to do the same job and more?

"Well the goats are more controllable. They're fenced, they put an electric fence around them. There is a rancher stays with them 24/7," said Ballinger.

Liability is the main issue, but the goats would clear only seven acres, so the residents want the cows back.

"Now that will be great if it's the seven acres near our residences. But that's only four percent of the 178 acres in the Acalanes open space," said McCormick.

There is still a chance the cows could come back to the hill. The Park, Recreation, and Open Space Commission is holding a meeting on July 11 to discuss that possibility.


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