For more than 20 years fire safety has had a low priority in the Berkeley City Council, particularly for the hill area, where there is the greatest danger that a firestorm like the one in 1991 might develop. In the 1980s the city even considered closing the only fire station in the hill area, which is also the only one east of the Hayward Fault. Over this period while the total number of city employees was rapidly increasing the number of firefighters was being steadily decreased. Even in the year right after the 1991 fire disaster in Oakland and Berkeley, the Berkeley Fire Department was forced to make a further cut in personnel. Because of these cuts it is now only possible to have three firefighters assigned to each engine company, which is far less effective than the standard number of four.
Berkeley voters approved an increase in firefighting capability in the hill area with the inclusion in Measure G of funding for a new joint fire station with the City of Oakland in the hill area along with upgrading of the Shasta Road Station No. 7. That would have given us two first-class stations east of the Hayward Fault. Unfortunately, Berkeley and Oakland could not agree on a location for the joint station, and Oakland built its own station in the Oakland Hills.
This made it necessary for the City of Berkeley to consider alternative ways to satisfy the desire of the voters for improved fire safety in the hills. It was decided that this could not be accomplished merely by expansion of Station 7. It was on a site that was too small and located on a narrow, winding road that could not provide short response times to most of the hill area.
For the above reasons, the city developed a plan to replace the old Station 7 with a new, first-class facility at the top of Shasta Road just off of Grizzly Peak Boulevard, opposite the Park Hills Gate. This site, provided by East Bay Municipal Utility District, is large enough for a first-class facility that on high fire hazard days would include an engine company from the East Bay Regional Park District. Because of its location it would decrease fire and emergency response times to most of the hill area and to the wildland areas just east of the Berkeley border. The city has developed preliminary plans and has done geologic studies of the site showing it is stable. These plans deserve the enthusiastic support of all North East Berkeley residents. The project is clearly consistent with the intent of Measure G to improve fire safety in the hill area, even though the exact way it is to be achieved is not that specifically described in Measure G. The plans represent the first time in years that the City Council has supported an increase in fire safety and shorter emergency response times for our neighborhoods.
In light of this history it is shocking that a small, well-organized group of people has been formed in an attempt to kill this plan for the new station, many of whom are not even close neighbors of the proposed site and some of whom do not even live in the hill area. They are using an argument that because the plan eventually developed is not exactly the one spelled out in Measure G and because that requires the city to use a validation lawsuit to authorize expenditure of Measure G bond money, the city should go back to square one. Many of us would agree that this kind of validation lawsuit has been used irresponsibly in the past to permit expenditure of bond money authorized by the voters for one specific purpose for a quite different purpose. However, this case is clearly not an irresponsible use of bond money; it is obviously consistent with the intent of Measure G to improve fire safety in the area. Going back to square one on this project is likely to result in years of further delay on a project that is long overdue and would waste the money that has been spent studying the site and developing the present plans.
Please write a note to the city manager, the mayor and the City Council in support of this excellent, much-needed project. It is particularly important for North East Berkeley but it also provides increased safety for flatland areas because it makes it much less likely that a small fire in the hills could again develop into a firestorm that spreads into neighboring areas as has occurred in the past.
A Berkeley resident, Jack Washburn is a former fire safety commissioner.