EBRPD challenges fire agency efforts to dictate forest fire management policy

The vegetation around the Brazilian Room in Tilden Park may look appealing, but it violates the fire code due to the lack of 100 feet of defensible space required around all structures. Credit: Nick Marnell / Bay City News

This story was originally published by the Bay City News Foundation.

A dispute over fire regulations opposes the Moraga-Orinda fire department against the East Bay Regional Park District just as the peak of the fire season arrives.

The Fire District has released citations that the parks are breaking fire codes, while the Park District insists it mitigates dangerous fuels with its own fire department and is not subject to it. to the fire district authority.

In response to an investigation, Sabrina Landreth, the park’s district general manager, released a statement saying her agency welcomes “ongoing discussions with the MOFD, as we continue to advance our fuel management programs.” .

Landreth has repeatedly declined to answer specific questions about his agency’s position, but a review of correspondence obtained through a request for public documents by Bay City News sheds light on the park district’s motives.

In a June 8 letter to the Fire District, Landreth explained his district’s efforts to reduce hazardous fuels to reduce the risk of forest fires. But Landreth balked at the idea of ​​the MOFD having final authority over reducing hazardous fuels in the park district.

“Please understand that the MOFD’s assertion of absolute authority over Park District fuel management is unprecedented,” Landreth wrote. “Unlike other landowners within the geographic boundaries of MOFD, the park district is a resource management agency with its own fire department that implements its own forest fire management plan. “

The Fire District bases its authority to establish and enforce its fire prevention code on the District Fire Protection Act 1987, which gives the district ultimate responsibility for prevention and extinction. fires within its geographic limits.

Natural landscaping develops along Canyon Road in Tilden Park in Contra Costa County. Fire codes require that dangerous vegetation like this be removed along the road, and the Moraga-Orinda Fire District has cited the East Bay Regional Park District for various code violations. But EBRPD maintains that it has its own fire mitigation procedures in place and that, as a public body, the MOFD has exceeded its authority. Credit: Nick Marnell / Bay City News

Code violations cited

When the fire district encounters a violation of the fire code on public property, it cites the entity. Technically, the fire district issues a pre-citation when it finds violations of the fire code and follows up with an administrative citation 30 days later if the violations have not been corrected.

The Fire District issued a pre-citation to the Park District on July 2, listing fire code violations in areas such as Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, and Sibley Regional Park. Tilden.

Examples of apparent infractions cited by the District include: failure to properly clean areas near habitable structures and park buildings, as well as failure to clearly display building addresses.

The park district responded that it had done the commissioned fire prevention work, or planned to do so, but the fire departments disagreed.

“The work they have done does not meet the requirements of the fire code,” MOFD Fire Marshal Jeff Isaacs said last week. “There are still violations present. “

The MOFD, a fire district of 60 employees and $ 31 million, followed the pre-citation with two administrative citations on August 3. The Park District, a public body with more than $ 200 million in annual revenues and more than 800 employees managing 125,000 acres of parkland in East Bay, chose to challenge the citations and requested a hearing, as was its law.

“The referenced citations are beyond the authority of the MOFD, and it has no jurisdiction to issue such citations as a special district created by the California legislature,” the park district wrote as No. 1 reason for requesting a hearing.

The fire department tackles prevention

Dave Winnacker took over as MOFD fire chief in December 2017, two months after a series of wildfires devastated North Bay, destroying nearly 250,000 acres and causing $ 14 billion in property damage.

Understanding that the MOFD includes 14,000 plots with houses built around land similar to that in North Bay, and taking into account the outcry from frightened residents, Winnacker stepped up the district’s fire prevention efforts.

It transferred $ 150,000 from the district budget to fire prevention, and MOFD added staff to its fuels mitigation program. The district then enacted the strictest fire prevention code in its history, and fire inspectors aggressively cited landowners in violation of the new regulations.

The chief insists he is responsible for enforcing the fire code on every property in the district, but is awaiting clarification from the park district hearing. In cases where a private owner defies such quotes, the MOFD may hire a contractor to do the work and place a tax lien on the property for the charges.

But since government agencies do not pay property tax, this option is not available in the case of the park district, and it is not clear what steps the MOFD can take to enforce the citations in this case.

“The MOFD seeks either to enforce the fire prevention code within our recognized jurisdiction to reduce the risk of uncontrolled forest fires, or to determine that the MOFD is not responsible for enforcement on held land or managed by the East Bay Regional Park District, ”said Winnacker.

The hearing requested by the park district, which is tentatively scheduled for October 20, would be administered by the MOFD board of directors.

Although the MOFD has historically held fire code hearings for private homeowners, this will be the first time it has ruled on a dispute between the fire district and a public body. If the park district does not win the hearing, its next action might be to sue the fire district.

With the dangers of a furious, drought-ridden fire season looming over the East Bay Hills, continued internal strife is an outcome few people probably want to see.

About Charles D. Goolsby

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