This story was originally published by the Bay City News Foundation.
A dispute over fire regulations is pitting the Moraga-Orinda Fire District against the East Bay Regional Park District just as the height of fire season arrives.
The fire district has issued citations stating that the parks are in violation of fire codes, while the park district insists that it mitigates hazardous fuels with its own fire department and is not subject to fire district authority.
In response to an inquiry, Sabrina Landreth, general manager of the park district, issued a statement saying her agency looks forward to “ongoing discussions with MOFD, as we continue to advance our fuels management programs.”
Landreth repeatedly declined to answer specific questions about her agency’s position, but a review of correspondence obtained through a public records request by Bay City News sheds some light on the park district’s motivations.
In a June 8 letter to the fire district, Landreth explained her district’s efforts to reduce hazardous fuels in order to lower the risk of wildfire. But Landreth balked at the idea that MOFD has final authority over hazardous fuels reduction within the park district.
“Please understand that MOFD’s assertion of absolute authority over Park District fuels management is unprecedented,” Landreth wrote. “Unlike other landowners within the geographical boundaries of MOFD, the park district is a resource management agency with its own fire department that implements its own Wildfire Management Plan.”
The fire district bases its authority to establish and enforce its fire code on the state Fire Protection District Law of 1987, which grants the district the ultimate responsibility to ensure the prevention and suppression of fires within its geographic boundaries.
Code violations cited
When the fire district encounters a fire code violation on public property, it cites the entity. Technically, the fire district issues a pre-citation when it observes fire code violations 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 July 2, listing fire code violations at areas including Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve and Tilden Regional Park.
Examples of apparent violations cited by the district include: failure to clear areas properly that are near habitable structures and park buildings, as well as failure to post building addresses clearly.
The park district responded that it had done the ordered fire prevention work, or had planned to do so, but fire authorities disagree.
“The work they did does not meet the fire code requirements,” MOFD Fire Marshal Jeff Isaacs said last week. “There are still violations present.”
MOFD, a 60-employee, $31 million fire district, followed the pre-citation with two administrative citations on Aug. 3. The park district, a public agency with more than $200 million in annual revenue and more than 800 employees managing 125,000 acres of parkland in the East Bay, chose to challenge the citations and requested a hearing, as was its right.
“The referenced citations exceed MOFD’s authority, and it lacks jurisdiction to issue such citations as a special district created by the California Legislature,” wrote the park district as its No. 1 reason for requesting a hearing.
Fire district gets tough on prevention
Dave Winnacker took over as MOFD fire chief in December 2017, two months after a series of wildfires devastated the North Bay, destroying nearly 250,000 acres and causing $14 billion in property damage.
Understanding that MOFD comprises 14,000 parcels with homes built around similar terrain as in the North Bay, and heeding the outcry of frightened residents, Winnacker beefed up district fire prevention efforts.
He shifted $150,000 of the district budget into fire prevention, and MOFD added personnel to its Fuels Mitigation Program. The district then enacted the most strict fire code in its history, and fire inspectors aggressively cited property owners in violation of the new regulations.
The chief insists that he is responsible for enforcing the fire code on every property within the district, but he awaits clarity from the park district hearing. In cases where a private property owner defies such citations, MOFD can hire a contractor to do the work and place a tax lien on the property for the charges.
But as public agencies pay no property tax, that option is not available in the case of the park district, and it isn’t clear what steps MOFD can take to enforce citations in this case.
“MOFD seeks either to enforce the fire code within our recognized jurisdiction to reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfire, or to determine that MOFD is not responsible for enforcement on lands owned or managed by the East Bay Regional Park District,” Winnacker said.
The hearing requested by the park district, which is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 20, would be administered by the MOFD board of directors.
While MOFD has always conducted fire code hearings for private property owners, this will be the first time it rules on a dispute between the fire district and a public agency. Should the park district not prevail at the hearing, its next course of action could be to sue the fire district.
With the perils of a furious, drought-enabled fire season looming over the East Bay hills, continued infighting is an outcome that likely few want to see.