Is Alameda Ready for the Big One? 

Fire chief says yes, but others say the risk of a conflagration is too high.

Alameda native Ken Gutleben has been tending his hometown's treasures for three decades. Long before the Loma Prieta earthquake, the 62-year-old contractor was working to retrofit the island's stately stock of Victorian homes. Sitting in a coffee shop on Park Street, he knows nearly every passerby by name, and even his high school history teacher stops to chat and get help programming a smoke alarm. In a city that boasts on its web site of being picturesque and historic — a place where "resplendent Victorian homes grace shade tree-lined streets" and citizens and city employees "work together to preserve and enhance the quality of life Alamedans have enjoyed for more than a century" — Gutleben is a living embodiment of how the city would like to see itself. Except that he's thinking of unloading all his properties and leaving town.

In fact, in his estimation, it's "crazy to stay here."

For nearly a decade, Gutleben has been urging Alameda to expand its firefighting resources in anticipation of the major earthquake that the US Geological Survey assures us is coming soon to a fault line near you. "It's inevitable, based on the conditions that we have, that we will end up with a firestorm," Gutleben said. He points to two factors: Much of Alameda is built on landfill and permeable soil, and roughly 3,000 of its homes are Victorians — the nation's highest percentage per capita, according to one ubiquitous claim.

"As a contractor replacing foundations for the last thirty years, I know the vulnerability," he said. "I know the danger." Constructed of soft, dry woods, Victorians lack fire stops in the framing as well as insulation to stop drafts; they're made even more fire-friendly by the wood lath that holds together the plaster walls and can fuel a blaze like kindling. Victorians tend to be "sitting on rotted bricks with an old mud cell with a soft-story section underneath it" and many still have old gas lighting systems that are filled with gas. Throw a major earthquake into the mix and "the gas pipes break; they're spewing out gas, pilot lights are still lit ... you've got a fire." In addition, permeable fill can liquefy, leaving water pipes unsupported and vulnerable to damage that can reduce pressure to fire hydrants or even cut them off completely.

It's a worst-case scenario for the entire East Bay, but Gutleben believes the danger for Alameda is compounded by his hometown's location. Connected to the mainland by just four bridges and two underwater tubes, Alameda is also linked to the regional water system by five connections spanning the Oakland Estuary. Although the East Bay Municipal Utility District has the capacity to divert water around potential breaks, Gutleben worries about the city's position at the "end of the line."

Alameda Division Fire Chief Ricci Zombeck echoes that concern. "We're effectively the end of the line ... and ultimately, in the event of a large-scale incident, we know that there's going to be damage to the system across the system," he said. This becomes a safety concern because, although Alameda is surrounded by water and has two lagoons to boot, it currently owns no equipment capable of pumping that water save its five fire engines and an aging fireboat that was finally dry-docked this month due to budget cuts after years of creaking toward decommission.

Fire Chief David Kapler calls the water-pumping capability of fire engines "very limited" and says that in the aftermath of a disaster those engines would be sorely needed elsewhere. "Will we be able to free up any of the engines to go to the bay and pump water?" he asked. "Well, we don't know. And even if we could, then it's a matter of how much hose we have and how far we can move it to where we need it," he offered. Because of such limitations — and because of goading by Gutleben — the fire department has been eyeing portable equipment such as tanker trucks and salt-water pumps. "The city has looked at some prototypes and models that are out there, but it's the cost that's really precluding us from doing anything to advance in that right now," Kapler said.

According to Zombeck's most conservative estimate, one system favored by Alameda would start at about $1.5 million for three salt-water pumps and attendant equipment, with each pump costing approximately $250,000. It's uncommon for municipalities to have such back-up hardware, although Zombeck said Oakland owns equipment for constructing emergency above-ground distribution systems, a setup similar to San Francisco's. Meanwhile, Berkeley has invested in a state-of-the-art portable pump system costing about $4.5 million for the pumps and $3 million for transportation and storage. David Orth, a retired deputy fire chief central to the Berkeley project, is so excited by the new technology that he jokingly dubs himself a salt-water pump "zealot." "We're happy that East Bay MUD is doing their part and trying to make stuff better, but [we] also realize that we can't depend upon it as the only source for us," he explained. "And so we're taking the proactive stance."

Regarding Alameda, Orth said "maybe you're not as secure as you think." He has advised the fire department about Berkeley's pump system and recommends that the island city pursue something similarly mobile and portable if possible. "It's not something anybody gave us a grant for," he added. "The citizens bought it through a bond measure."

But budgets are abysmal in Alameda, and last month the fire department began a system of brownouts, closing either an ambulance or an engine each day that the number of on-duty responders fell below 27. Kapler called the measures unavoidable, writing that "fire department brownouts are a necessary reaction to the worsening local and national economic recession." The firefighters union countered with safety concerns, reduced response times, and complaints that overtime has been forced by frozen and unfunded positions (including Zombeck's former job as disaster preparedness coordinator). Union president Dominick Weaver calls both the brownouts and the water-supply issue matters of "having enough resources to respond." And he agrees with Gutleben: "If the water supply goes down in Alameda and we cannot fight a fire, it's going to be a conflagration of the kind of proportion that people haven't seen since the 1900s," Weaver said.

But Chief Kapler disagrees. "If an earthquake happened this weekend, it doesn't leave us without something to do. Assuming that one or more of our bridges are going to be open and passable, we can bring in tanker trucks from other communities too. So until we get it here locally, we would be drawing it in from mutual aid from other parts of the state." Yet in the event of a regional disaster that would keep neighboring cities too busy to aid Alameda, the first outside help to arrive would likely be from the Sacramento Valley.

Kapler added that Alameda also has one of the strongest and most devoted teams of trained emergency volunteers in California, due in part to community awareness that "there is a need to be self-sufficient here because there is the possibility that we could be cut off from outside help for a while."

But for Gutleben, self-sufficiency begins with the water supply. He calls suggestions that the island is prepared for disaster "criminal" and points to his campaign of letters, editorials, and appearances before the city council as evidence that officials were calling pumps too pricey long before the current economic crisis. "Let it go on record that our council and staff decided we can't afford a salt water pump system, a system that would cost less than $2 million and save lives, as well as our architectural heritage," reads one February 2007 letter to the Alameda Journal; a 2005 op-ed in the Alameda Sun details AFD declarations going back to 1998 that pumps are too expensive. Gutleben laments that city officials knew about the salt-water pump when Alameda began its disastrous foray into telecommunications in the late 1990s — an endeavor that ultimately cost the city nearly $90 million— and later when efforts began on a $30.5 million renovation and expansion of the Alameda Theatre and a new parking garage. In comparison, he argued, a pump system is "a drop in the bucket."

At Gutleben's prompting, Vice Mayor Doug deHaan has twice in the last four years proposed that Alameda pursue a feasibility study on the issue. "I asked the Council to set aside some money just to look at it, and we never did that," he recalled. "Back then, I think you might have had a good chance of doing it, maybe a fifty-fifty chance of getting some initial [funding]. And maybe you might have even looked at your internal funds, particularly transportation, something of that nature, that maybe you could divert. Today, no. I think all bets are off today."

Because that planning was never done, such a project wouldn't qualify for the federal stimulus funding that Alameda has commenced requesting with wild municipal abandon for its various "shovel-ready" needs. Meanwhile, the fire department's emergency water supply working group hasn't met since last August — budget problems forced it to shift priorities just as the committee was getting ready to expand into a citywide effort involving many departments, including the finance department, Zombeck recalled.

"It's something I hope to see us pick back up once we have the time and perhaps a brighter budget picture," he said.

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