Firefighters say adding density to Oakland’s fire prone hills could be deadly, but where to draw the line is a matter of debate. Photo credit: Amir Aziz
The Oakland Hills, where houses are nestled in forests of dry, volatile trees, are uniquely prone to devastating fires such as the 1991 tragedy. The narrow, winding streets with dead ends and few connections to major roads make it particularly difficult for local residents to close leave or enter emergency vehicles.
To limit the number of people and cars who would have to evacuate the area in a crisis, the Oakland Fire Department and city planners want to ban the construction of new “additional housing units” or ADUs in the hills, fearing more backyards would create too much deadly shacks Create density.
In recent years, state and local laws have encouraged the construction of ADUs to address concerns about the housing shortage. These structures can refer to any independent residential unit built on the same plot of land as a main house: granny flats, in-laws, garages converted into one-room flats, or basement flats. ADUs are widely recognized as a cheaper, faster and often less controversial means of building much-needed housing.
On Wednesday, the Oakland Planning Commission was considering a staffing proposal to update the city’s ADU law, mainly to bring the policy in line with new state rules making it easier for homeowners to get approval to build the units. Most of the meeting, however, focused on another aspect of the proposal that would ban all ADUs throughout the Oakland area, which is considered by the state to be at high risk for forest fires, most of which is in the mountains.
More than 50 people called for the meeting, most of whom criticized the proposal and urged the city to take a more “surgical” approach by considering the unique safety risks of individual streets or specific neighborhoods rather than cordoning off the entire hillside area. Many said they bought their homes with the expectation of building an ADU for aging parents or adult children. Others said the policy is unethical and places the burden of housing crisis relief on poorer, already developed neighborhoods.
The commissioners seemed startled and moved by the emanating concern and eventually moved the item to another session instead of voting in favor of referral to the city council. They asked city officials to come back with an updated proposal and more information in the future.
“This pits three things off against each other,” said Commissioner Amanda Monchamp. “Risk of fire, need for living space and equity. There is no victory here. “
Given the all-time high fire hazard, OFD fears it will densify the hills
Thirty years ago a firestorm swept through the Oakland hills. The risk is now exponentially higher. Photo credit: Amir Aziz
Higher temperatures, stronger winds, nationwide droughts: Climate change is making Oakland more and more susceptible to fire.
“We used to call this the ‘new norm’ in the fire service,” said OFD deputy chief Nicholas Luby at the meeting on Wednesday. “We changed this nomenclature to the ‘new extreme’.” The East Bay already had its first red flag this year, a fire warning was usually only issued in the fall, and the recent mass tree deaths in regional parks has created an emergency.First forces are particularly concerned about this year’s forest fires and those in the years to come will come.
Typical fire protection measures such as vegetation management are still important, said Luby, but “when we reach winds with this force, houses become fuel.” The solution? “Reducing occupancy in the area,” he said.
The city has started a new modeling software called Zonehaven, which uses the number of people, cars, buildings, and escape routes in an area to simulate emergencies and aid in evacuation planning. (The public will soon be able to use the software to create their own evacuation plans as well.) While rescue workers have always been concerned about the narrow streets in the hills, Luby said “bottlenecks” where cars can be secured on the run Crossbreeds seem to be the bigger problem.
The construction of ADUs should be banned “if the existing infrastructure cannot cope with the increase in population density without significantly impairing public safety due to” bottleneck “problems in the flow of vehicles and evacuation bottlenecks,” wrote the planning office in its staff report.
As of 2017, Oakland Policy has restricted the construction of ADU in some narrow parts of the hills. The new proposal greatly extends the ban to the entire area classified by Cal Fire, the state fire department, as a “very high risk of fire zone”. This zone includes most of the hills, with a very rough lower boundary along Highway 13 and along I-580 from Mills College to San Leandro. In some cases it includes neighborhoods below these highways.
The proposal would ban ADUs in Cal Fire’s very high fire protection zone, shaded gray on the top of the map. Photo credit: Oakland Planning Department
In a sobering presentation, Luby described the evacuation challenges during Camp Fire in Paradise 2018, where wider, less populated streets and thorough evacuation planning didn’t stop people from dying in their cars.
“They didn’t expect power lines and trees to fall and routes to be blocked when the wind got stronger. There were twice as many cars on the road, ”said Luby. “Our infrastructure cannot support large-scale evacuations.”
More ADUs will inevitably mean more cars, city planners said, as transport links are poor in the hills and ADU law doesn’t usually require homeowners to park off-street. Many people already noticed at the meeting that the residents often disregard the parking restrictions in the hills and block the access of emergency vehicles.
“Just because we’ve built apartments in areas we shouldn’t have doesn’t mean we should move on,” says Laura Kaminski, urban planning manager.
Homeowners are demanding more evidence and nuance in the ADU rules
ADUs have proliferated in Oakland, where they are used to house family members or rented out to tenants. Photo credit: Craigslist
At the meeting on Wednesday, speakers said they had been taken by surprise by the proposed ADU ban and some became emotional and described how the policy would thwart their plans to care for family members.
“For us, ADU will likely be what enables our adult children to live in a community where they cannot afford a home,” said Shumsha Hanif-Cruz. “And it eliminates the possibility of sources of income as we get older and retire.”
Another spokesperson mentioned his mother was moved from an Oregon fire zone to a garage in Oakland Hills, and another said her disabled neighbor is dependent on a caretaker who lives in an ADU in her home.
Many speakers questioned the city’s lack of details on how many ADUs are likely to be built in the hills and how many cars they would put on the road. In many cases, ADUs are for older relatives who don’t drive or for millennials who prefer to ride bikes, they argued.
“No data was presented so it seems a bit premature to come to a decision tonight to stop all ADU construction in this heterogeneous zone,” said a spokeswoman named Sarah. “It seems ironic that there is no break [other] Development. “Many mentioned the paradox of this proposal and the existence of the vacancy tax in Oakland that obliges owners of vacant lots, even in the hills, to pay a fine for not building on their land.
Hanif-Cruz was among the many speakers who questioned the breadth of the proposed ban. She lives in the Eastmont hills and said she would drive any number of available streets, like 82nd or 73rd Avenue, without clogging a freeway or major intersection. “Not all of these neighborhoods are created equal in terms of access to escape routes,” she said. Others said the state boundaries were arbitrary, in some cases they included parts of a particular block, but others did not.
But a handful of speakers, most of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm survivors in 1991, sided with the city.
“I still remember the horror of the bottlenecks and the people trying to get out,” said Howard Matis. “You can’t take a bike – I had a young child. If you allow ADUs in the hills, you will personally sentence your Oaklander colleagues to death in the next fire. “
Commissioners are asking for more data
After listening to local residents, planners said they didn’t feel confident enough about the recruitment proposal to send it to the city council for a vote.
“My concern is that we are still lacking information,” said chairman Tom Limon. “Who in the mountains is interested in building an ADU, and what type? That would be very helpful in determining the risks. ”He found that many people who lost their homes in the 1991 fire were rebuilding much larger homes that now house two aging residents who could accommodate an ADU.
City records show Oakland issued 346 permits for ADUs across the city in 2020 and 292 in 2019, but it’s unclear how many were built in the proposed fire zone.
Commissioner Leopold Ray-Lynch withdrew from the discussion after pointing out that he lived in the fire risk area and intended to build an ADU.
It may not be appropriate to extend the Oakland ADU exemption area to this full Cal Fire zone, Monchamp said.
“I appreciate it as a government label, but it seems like it really encompasses a lot more in the field and we could probably find a way to go somewhere in between,” she said. “I wasn’t entirely convinced that we’d looked at enough to balance all of the competing factors.”
The commission unanimously voted to ask staff to respond to questions posed on Wednesday and to work more closely with the state in drafting the directive, eventually bringing forward an updated proposal on an unspecified date.