A Disaster Waiting to Happen 

As we head into the worst part of fire season, a sprawling property in the Oakland hills is strewn with overgrown vegetation and hollowed-out buildings.

Eighteen years ago this month, Oakland suffered one of the worst fire disasters in US history. The 1991 Oakland hills firestorm killed nine people, destroyed nearly 4,000 homes, and caused widespread property damage that reached estimates exceeding $35 billion. Now, after three years of drought have left trees and shrubs crackling dry, the city is staring into the teeth of another dangerous fire season. Plus, Oakland is facing a frightening new threat. The 167-acre former Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in the hills above I-580 is a mess of overgrown and dead vegetation and dilapidated buildings that under the wrong circumstances could explode.

The sprawling Oak Knoll property also is littered with toxic asbestos that could pose a significant health threat should it become airborne. Plus, the one hundred or so rundown buildings on the property have become a haven for transients. Indeed, the situation at Oak Knoll is so dire that the office of City Attorney John Russo has fired off a series of urgent letters and motions in recent days to the bankruptcy court overseeing Oak Knoll's future, demanding that the extreme fire and health hazards be cleaned up immediately.

City officials estimate that it will cost at least $6.7 million to abate the property.

"The grounds at Oak Knoll are disgusting," Russo wrote in a strongly worded letter to the bankruptcy trustee's attorney late last month. "The vegetation is largely dead and the Oakland fire chief has declared the area as a major fire threat. There are ninety-plus dilapidated World War II buildings that are just wooden shells — a tinderbox awaiting a lightning strike, the carelessness of a trespasser, or worse."

Oak Knoll was abandoned last fall by its owners, the developer SunCal and its financial backer Lehman Brothers, after Lehman, and then SunCal, filed for bankruptcy. But before leaving the site, crews working for SunCal and Lehman began stripping out the old Navy buildings, readying them for demolition. But then when Lehman ran out of cash and stopped paying the bills, the crews took off before completing the work. Now, the property is full of hollowed out buildings and piles and piles of flammable, toxic debris.

At the same time, trees, shrubs, and weeds have overgrown nearly everything on the site, including the streets, making it difficult to get around. The fire department is particularly concerned about fighting a conflagration on the property because East Bay MUD shut off most of the fire hydrants when SunCal and Lehman stopped paying their water bills. "Leaving the site with asbestos and no water, it's unconscionable," said Donald Mitchell of the Sequoyah Hills and Oak Knoll Neighborhood Association, during a recent tour of the property. "It's inexcusable."

Mitchell and the neighborhood groups have kept a close eye on the many developing problems at Oak Knoll. In fact, he filed $115 million in claims with the Lehman bankruptcy court in New York last month before the city filed its $6.7 million abatement demand with the SunCal bankruptcy court in Southern California.

Mitchell also has expressed concerns about both the Oakland police and fire departments' decision to operate training exercises on a 5.5-acre city-owned parcel within Oak Knoll. The city property, which is not subject to the bankruptcy proceedings, also is in terrible shape, and cops and firefighters may have been exposed to asbestos without their knowledge. "The city of Oakland has willfully allowed these buildings to remain in this extremely hazardous condition for in excess of two years while they continue to deteriorate further," Mitchell wrote in an e-mail to city leaders late last week.

In addition, the fire department may have worsened the fire threat by cutting large holes in the roofs of buildings on the city's property during the exercises. In an interview, Oakland Fire Marshal James Edwards said the training was good for firefighters. But he acknowledged that if a fire were to start in one of those buildings, oxygen flowing through the holes in the roof could allow the blaze to spread more rapidly. "It could probably burn a little faster," he said, adding that the buildings should be boarded up to keep out transients.

The city filed its motions and clean-up demand in advance of a pivotal October 15 court hearing in the SunCal bankruptcy proceedings in Orange County — which are closely tied to the Lehman case back east. Russo and lawyers for the city are concerned that the outcome of the hearing will result in no money being directed to Oak Knoll any time soon. In recent days, numerous cities have flooded the court with similar motions, demanding action on the two-dozen or so problem properties created by the SunCal-Lehman implosion.

Although SunCal and Lehman deserve most of the blame for what has happened at Oak Knoll, Russo and lawyers representing the city are especially angry with the bankruptcy trustee, Steve Speier, in the SunCal case. They argue that Speier has flouted numerous federal, state, and local laws in allowing Oak Knoll to become a disaster waiting to happen. They also note that Speier has been acutely aware of the situation for the past year. In fact, in previous court filings, Speier has sounded the alarm about Oak Knoll and other SunCal/Lehman properties, telling the court that "human lives and property are being put at risk." Neither Speier nor his attorneys, William Lobel and William Neue, returned calls seeking comment for this story.

Finally, it should be noted that the SunCal/Lehman debacle at Oak Knoll is not directly tied to SunCal's separate plans for a massive housing development at the former Alameda Naval Air Station. But having said that, SunCal's inability to prevent or correct the egregious conditions at Oak Knoll should be a cause for concern for both Alameda leaders and city residents.

Oak Knoll, Elephants, and Giraffes

Some of the dead wood strewn around Oak Knoll is not the fault of SunCal, Lehman, or the city. In recent years, Oakland Zoo workers illegally cut down dozens of black acacia trees there to feed to the zoo's elephants and giraffes. But because the animals don't eat the acacia's trunks or large limbs, the zoo workers left them lying around the Oak Knoll property and just took the smaller branches and leaves. "At some point they decided to just back up the truck and pull out the chainsaws," Mitchell said.

Joel Parrott, executive director of the zoo, told Full Disclosure that they had permission from the Navy, and then from SunCal and Lehman, to cut down the acacias, which are non-native species. But Parrot said they didn't know they were violating city law when they cut down trees with trunks that are at least nine inches in diameter at chest height. "That's where we made our mistake," he said.

Parrot said the zoo is not suffering from a lack of food for the animals. Instead, they chopped down the acacias because the animals like them so much. "They love to chew on it and eat it — especially the elephants," he said. He said the zoo and the city are in negotiations over what penalty the zoo should pay for cutting down so many trees without permits. Zoo employees may end up planting trees at nearby King Estates or doing trail work, he said.

But some neighbors are upset that the zoo is apparently getting off with a slap on the wrist because of its standing in the community. They note that the city has sought to prosecute private citizens for cutting down trees without the proper permits. In fact, the city recently won a conviction against an Oakland resident who illegally chopped down a neighbor's tree.

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