Oakland Firesafe Council does all it can to prepare residents for disasters
By Lou Fancher
Awareness and preparedness are the Oakland Firesafe Council’s top priorities when it comes to keeping the city’s approximately 452,000 residents safe during emergencies.
The nonprofit founded in 2014 by Sue Piper and Ken and Dinah Benson to protect local residents and business owners during wildfires and other emergencies continues to be powered by a small band of volunteers.
Location-specific programs, workshops, neighborhood projects, community town halls, partnerships with the city of Oakland, homeowner associations and other emergency preparedness organizations have resulted in a resource-rich, impressively informative website (oaklandfiresafecouncil.org) and other achievements.
Among the landmark strides made recently are the establishment of the Oakland Community Preparedness & Response (OCP&R) program and certification of Oakland’s first Firewise USA Recognized Community, the Klamath-Brunell neighborhood group. Doug Mosher is a 21-year resident of Montclair, an OCP&R program manager and is active on the Oakland Firesafe Council (OFC).
“Firewise certification is very important,” said Mosher, 63, who owns tech company SeniorFusion.org. “Wildfire is most often in Oakland associated with the wildland-urban interface, but people in the flatter sections of Oakland don’t think about it as much as people in the hills.
“We can’t ignore the fact that wind-driven firestorms don’t care about hills and woods. Look at Coffey Park in Santa Rosa: a neighborhood of homes and no hills. It was devastated by the Tubbs Fire in 2017 (with 1,422 Coffey Park homes destroyed).”
The Firewise program offers a framework for building collaborative neighborhood groups and provides toolkits, guides and other resources allowing homeowners to make their communities safe and resistant to wildfire disasters.
“We’re getting the word out to everyone that they can take steps to harden their homes. We encourage neighborhoods to work together to fire-proof empty lots, help fellow homeowners with limited resources, make sure streets where vegetation is overgrown are mitigated, peaceably control parking on evacuation routes,” said Mosher.
“These things come together to make effective changes when neighbors know each other. Neighbors helping each other is crucial to survival because they are right there when a disaster happens. First responders and firefighters are limited in numbers. There’s no way they can get to everybody at once. We have to support ourselves, our families, our neighbors.”
Mosher said two of the best two ways to help are awareness and preparedness, the OFC’s mantra. Through tabling events, webinars, virtual and in-person workshops and other initiatives, the council has reached more than 4,000 people and continues efforts to advocate for emergency readiness at local, regional and state levels.
“We’re growing all the time,” said Mosher. “We work closely with city officials in the emergency and public works departments and others. We helped ensure that wildfires are a priority by working with (Oakland) City Council members. We are seeking to have continued city funding for goat grazing, chipping and vegetation removal. And we’ve worked hard to make sure vegetation inspections happen at every home in the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone — and they do.”
Mosher said increasing mega-wildfires in California and Western states in recent years have by their nature raised public awareness. Readiness is something Mosher said he learned was crucial while growing up on the East Coast, where “hurricanes happen,” but readiness is not always on local residents’ minds.
“It doesn’t tend to be high on homeowners’ lists because a fire is seen as a future event, and there are things to worry about right now, immediately, today,” he said, noting that wishful “future-event” thinking applies beyond wildfires.
“Earthquakes too. We’re sitting on top of the Hayward Fault, but people don’t think about it until there’s a rattle, social media lights up, they check their grab-and-go bags … and then that fades. So it’s a constant process to remind people we live in a wonderful area, but with earthquakes, it’s a matter of when, not if.”
Mosher said the top five actions residents can take to prepare for any kind of disaster are:
He said forming OCP&R was a direct response when the Oakland Fire Department’s Emergency Management Services Division and its Communities of Oakland Respond to Emergencies (CORE) training program lost funding in 2018.
“We provided a subset of the CORE training. The city now offers Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, which is a great and comprehensive program. CERT covers overall preparedness and is about 23 hours in length. Our 1.5-hour workshop focuses just on the most important things people can do to help safeguard their lives, homes and neighborhoods.”
While continuing to increase awareness and working toward robust preparedness, the OFC is turning its attention to emergency readiness in merchant areas such as Montclair Village. Although many aspects will be the same, business owners must consider having emergency supplies on-site, developing and sharing evacuation plans with employees and learning the shutoffs for gas and power.
“Montclair Village has gas lines, and people probably don’t know where shutoffs are,” said Mosher. “How will businesses handle sheltering in place, not just immediate evacuations? How will they handle customers during an emergency?”
Mosher hopes all people living or working in Oakland — or any Bay Area community — understand that ember protection is key.
“Don’t have vegetation within 5 feet of your home. Anything combustible like bark mulch is asking for trouble. Flying embers cause the most damage to homes during fires, not flames. They get into gutters and crawl space vents and chimneys and cause great damage.”
Overall, Mosher and the OFC emphasizes communication. The OCP&R program created GENOAK, a two-way radio communications network for when cell phones fail during large-scale emergencies. GENOAK offers complete information about purchasing and setting up the radios. If more people are aware and prepare for emergencies that inevitably will arrive, Mosher is certain Oakland and other areas in Alameda County covered by the OFC will be safer.