Oakland Hills Alive With Activity
New city codes and residents' pride form foundation for rebuilding leveled community. AFTER THE FIRE
FORTY-SIX days after the massive fire that leveled 3,534 dwellings here, ashen ruins have become bustling anthills of reconstruction.While mini-bulldozers scoop rubble into waiting trucks and dumpsters, construction and clearance officials rendezvous with former homeowners on passing sidewalks. Dotting the landscape are signs posted by design firms seeking business. Others read, "This property is not abandoned. It is under control of the owner. Trespassing and/or removal of any items is prohibited by law ... Oakland Police." "Oakland today is a story of homeowners and civic associations drawing together to provide both collective solace and consumer clout," says Alfred Lee, president of the Rockridge Terrace Homeowners Association. "They feel they can have more leverage over politicians and rebuilding companies if they act en masse," he says. Downtown, a more official response to the fire continues to unfold from city officials criticized in the wake of the worst fire in United States history. The Oct. 20 blaze consumed 1,900 acres and killed 25 people. City Fire Chief P. Lamont Ewell has announced plans for Oakland's 424 firefighters to begin Incident Command System (ICS) training next month to manage mammoth disasters. New radio communications are to be installed by May with 14 channels and secondary frequencies to eliminate the serious log jam on three channels during the October fire. Modernized firefighting equipment is being sought. A new, 15-page proposal by Oakland City Manager Henry Gardner will be voted on Dec. 10 by the City Council. Among its recommendations: * A ban on wood roofs and new requirements for fire-resistant materials on siding and overhangs. * A "vegetative management plan" to keep homes and open space free of dense brush and trees. * Creation of a "fire suppression district" to pay the cost of clearing neighborhoods of excess vegetation (perhaps $50 annually). * A citywide firefighting bond to raise money for extra equipment. "There will be lots of heated discussion," says Mona Lombard, spokeswoman for the city manager's office. "The city doesn't have money to do a lot of these things, yet the rebuilding process has to get moving." But the more meaningful story of local rebirth comes from people in the neighborhoods. "The overwhelming sentiment of these residents is resilience," says Jackie Wright, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross who has worked in the area until last week. "People are bound and determined to go on in spite of the incredible physical losses they incurred." The number of homeowner associations has grown from a handful to 44 at last count. Most give the city high marks in setting up programs to deal with debris cleanup, speed permit processes, and keep citizens abreast of unfolding developments. Days after the fire, a Community Restoration Development Center located city, state, and federal agencies in a single location along with insurance and utility personnel. But members' overwhelming concerns are getting new codes for fire readiness, including underground utility wires, wider streets, more fire hydrants, and vegetation rules. And homeowners say they are fighting the battle to keep money-grubbing developers from changing the character of the neighborhood by building houses that are too large. "We want to retain our quaint neighborhood despite overwhelming monetary incentives to change it," adds Lee. "We're not sure how to do that." Eighty-five percent of those who lost houses have decided to rebuild, according to Susan Healey, spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Most were under-insured, she says, especially senior citizens who did not upgrade coverage as property values accelerated. As of Nov. 23, 4,407 applications for uninsured losses had been filed with FEMA, she says. The organization has written 829 checks totaling $623,265 for temporary housing. The Small Business Association (SBA), which deals with long-term loans, has received 595 applications and approved 129 for $5 million. m not holding hope of getting any money [from SBA] soon," says one 12-year resident who is trying to recover her insurance shortfall. "I know they are still backlogged from the earthquake of 1989." A negative perception of the organization has been exacerbated locally by its refusal to share costs with the city for debris removal that is not on public property. An extensive plan was designed, instead, by city-retained consulting firm ICF Kaiser with the expressed purpose of consolidating costs and personnel and providing uniform pricing. "Most are resisting the plan," says Healey. "They don't trust the bureaucracy with getting it done in any decent time." With the winter rainy season upon them, many fear major mudslides resulting from loss of vegetation. Several residents express the sentiment of one lady that although the past month has been the worst of her life, "there is a certain charge in being able to create something totally new and totally your own from the ground up." "The blessing is that everything can be brought up to code - old heating, wiring, insulation," says Robert Wieczorek, of Robert's Reconstruction. But such opportunities are coming under trying circumstances. Most need housing soon and have little time to tend to the intricacies of architectural design. To help, the disaster center is piled high with fliers, pamphlets, and guides informing victims what market rates are normal for such services as asphalt paving, fencing, gates, and irrigation. Public advisory sheets describe fire-retardant siding, tiling, and roofing. "Building your own house is usually a process considered over years," says FEMA's Healey. "These people are having to make dozens of decisions in weeks."