OAKLAND -- Lax oversight by the Fire Department has hampered a critical component of the city's effort to prevent another devastating wildfire in the Oakland Hills, City Auditor Courtney Ruby said in a report released Tuesday.
After the 1991 Hills fire that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes, Oakland ordered firefighters to conduct annual vegetation inspections of roughly 26,000 wildfire prone properties, but Ruby found that the Fire Department often doesn't take the inspections seriously and fails to make property owners abate fire risks.
When the city has paid to abate fire hazards, it failed to recoup most of the costs -- more than $122,000 over the past two years -- from property owners, the audit found.
"We found a lackluster culture surrounding the performance of inspections," Ruby said. "This is important because our citizens' lives are at stake, and our history demonstrates that."
Ruby also urged politicians and city officials to engage residents about strengthening parking enforcement in Hills where parked cars on windy narrow roads can impede fire engines racing to a blaze. The audit cited one instance of firefighters having to abandon their truck and run to their destination because their engine was blocked by a parked car.
In a written response earlier this month, City Administrator Deanna Santana said that the audit "validated the issues the Fire Department has been working to address." She also said the city would consider beefing up parking enforcement in the Hills.
The audit report was released less than a week after residents in the Hills narrowly rejected the renewal of a $78 per year property tax to pay for wildfire prevention measures. The tax contributed a tiny fraction of the funds that pay for the property inspection program.
Tax opponents had questioned whether the audit had been delayed because any criticisms of the Fire Department could have swayed voters against the tax. Ruby, however, insisted that the audit was not completed until last week after the voting period for the mail-in ballot had ended. "There was no manipulation," she said.
The annual inspections focus on vegetation that could fuel a major wildfire in the Hills. Firefighters go door-to-door with a checklist looking for issues such as excessive brush under decks and tree limbs that have grown too close to homes.
Ruby wrote that the Fire Department had failed to establish guidelines to ensure that inspections were performed correctly and used a faulty database system that made it difficult to document and track compliance with inspections.
"There is no quality control," she said.
The audit chalked up some of the issues to budget cuts which have reduced both firefighter staffing and the ranks of civilian inspectors who handle nonresidential properties.
Three years ago, staffing cuts forced the city's Building Services Division to stop handling the Fire Department's billing and collections for properties whose fire hazards were abated by the city.
The Fire Department has struggled in assuming that role, the audit found. In 2011 and 2012, Oakland paid to eliminate fire hazards at 93 out of 829 previously unabated properties. The city billed delinquent property owners $130,572 for the work but collected only $7,819, the audit found. Oakland officials failed to file any liens against those properties.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.