OAKLAND -- In the Oakland hills, sweeping views come with the threat of wind-swept wildfires like the one in 1991 that killed 25 people and damaged more than 3,000 homes.
To avoid a sequel, property owners throughout the hills in 2003 agreed to tax themselves on average about $65 a year to set up a Wildfire Prevention District.
That tax sunsets at the end of the year, so about 40,000 residents now must decide whether to renew it and preserve about $1.8 million a year for wildfire prevention measures -- including a herd of grass-eating goats.
The mail-in ballot was sent to residents last week and must be returned before Nov. 13. A two-thirds majority is needed for passage.
City leaders and the fire department support the tax, which provides a guaranteed source of fire prevention funds separate from the city's operating budget.
Many residents also support preserving the district, but sentiment is not universal.
Nancy Sidebotham said the district shouldn't include neighborhoods like hers near Mills College, where streets are wide enough to allow easy access to fire trucks and vegetation overgrowth isn't as much as a problem as it is farther north where the 1991 fire raged.
"They wanted the district to go all the way down here because they wanted to include areas where they could collect money from," she said.
Sue Piper, who lost her home in the 1991 blaze, said the tax is a major reason why subsequent wildfires in the hills haven't been nearly as destructive.
"The bottom line to me is it's 21 cents a day, and it's the best insurance we have to protect our home and our families from major fires in the hills," she said.
Acting Assistant Fire Marshall Kim Catano said projects funded by the measure have led to a "significant fuel reduction in the Oakland hills, which has contributed to the ability to fight fires better."
In addition to the goat grazing, the funds pay for the cutting of brush to clear emergency escape routes, the removal of dead trees, roadside mowing and roving fire patrols on high fire-risk days.
The fire department also inspects all properties in the district for potential wildfire risks. A citizens committee oversees the district's expenditures, which are independently audited.
The district, which includes properties east of Highway 13 and sections of Interstate 580, was established by the fire department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire.
The proposed extension of the district would raise the tax on single family homeowners from $65 to $78 per year. Condominium owners would pay $39.50.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.