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Oakland must do a better job eliminating fire hazards in the dry, windblown hills to avoid a repeat of the 1991 firestorm that killed 25 people and destroyed 3,000 properties, the city's auditor found.
The Fire Department isn't doing enough to inspect yards and clear away fire fuels and, the few times it has hired contractors to cut grass or trim trees, hasn't recovered costs from residents, said City Auditor Courtney Ruby.
Ruby said her office found a "lackluster culture" in the city's inspections of the roughly 26,000 properties in the Oakland hills.
"It doesn't appear to be a priority for the firefighters," Ruby said of the inspections. "It appears (inspections) are not being taken seriously and not always performed correctly."
The Fire Department is charged with inspecting all properties in the Oakland hills for fire hazards, Ruby said. Property owners are required to keep their lots free of overgrown grasses, weeds or other fire fuel. If they do not, the city, after three rounds of inspection, can hire a contractor to resolve the violation and then bill the property owner for the expense.
In 2011 and 2012, fire officials found that 829 properties needed to have fire hazards removed by an outside contractor. Yet the city only hired workers for 11 percent of the properties, Ruby said.
As a result, hundreds of properties were left with overgrown weeds, hanging eucalyptus branches or dry woodpiles that could feed a wildfire spreading through the hills, much as they did in the 1991 fire.
"We know better now - that's what really strikes at the core of the audit," Ruby said. "We have data, and we know better and we have to perform better. What we found is that the system is broken."
"Shifting priorities, coupled with budgetary constraints have led to a lack of clarity and resources" in the inspection process, Ruby wrote.
In 2011, the Fire Department's six full-time vegetation management inspectors were reduced to part-time positions, Ruby said, meaning they are often not working during the height of Oakland's fire season. Part-time employees can work no more than 1,000 hours in a fiscal year.
The cutbacks also meant the end of firefighters and inspectors examining properties together, as they did before 2010, Ruby said. Firefighters, not inspectors, are now tasked with entering compliance information into the city's database in between fire and medical calls.
"While many of these changes may have been, in part, because of limited resources," Ruby wrote in the audit, "they appear to support the perception that fire inspections are not necessarily important."
And when the city did hire contractors to fix run-down properties, staffers failed to collect most of the fees and fines owed to the city, Ruby said.
In 2011, the city spent $40,736 correcting problems at 39 properties, but never sent invoices to the property owners for any of the costs, as they should have done, Ruby said. In 2012, the city billed 54 property owners with $130,572 in costs, but only managed to collect $7,819, Ruby said.
In a written response to the audit, City Administrator Deanna Santana, who oversees the Fire Department, acknowledged the problems and said the city has already made changes.
"The audit performed only validated the issues the Fire Department has been working to address, such as permanent staffing of the supervisor position, a more efficient contract bidding system, a cost-recovery billing system and well-trained and dedicated inspection staff," Santana wrote.
Karen Boyd, a spokeswoman for the city, said the city had no further comment.
Story provided by: sfgate.com