Fired Up: Controversy Still Raging Like Wildfire Over Tree-Cutting Plan in East Bay

By Natalie Stevenson

As drought continues to crisp up the state—increasing the potential for catastrophic fire and further taxing plants already competing for water resources—many conservationists are supporting a plan by UC Berkeley, the city of Oakland and East Bay Regional Parks District plan to cut, chop, mulch and deter the future growth of many non-native trees.

This spring, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved $5.6 million in grants to cut down nearly half a million trees over 2000 acres. FEMA’s stated purpose: “to substantially reduce hazardous fire risk to people and structures in the East Bay Hills and the vicinity of Miller/ Knox Regional Shoreline.” But not all environmentalists are ready to fire up the power saws and wood chippers. Some opponents of the plan, which would eliminate nearly half a million trees in the East Bay Hills, have sued to stop the project, asserting that it unfairly targets some species—particularly the Eucalyptus—and fails to address what they say are more significant fire hazards.

Conversely, the Sierra Cub has also sued, wanting not to save the Eucalyptus but to see them all go.

With viewpoints so staunchly at odds, the FEMA plan, which has been in the works for 10 years, has made little headway. Its critics call it an “environmental disaster.” Its proponents have little patience for those who want to preserve the Eucalyptus. Says Tom Klatt, UC Berkeley’s vice provost for strategic academic and facilities planning: “We see the land and we see a risk. Other people look at it and see pretty trees.” 

Forest fires in the East Bay are particularly vicious because of their unpredictability and force. In 1923 a devastating wildfire rolled down UC campus from the hills, destroying 600 homes and businesses and leaving 1,000 students homeless.  More recently, the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 structures.

A scroll through FEMA’s 1991 fire report shows that inadequate resources and planning by the fire department, five years of drought and the proximity of wood-shingled homes to fuel sources each played a part in spreading the fire, but that seasonal winds were the main catalyst.

Most of the time, the East Bay’s Mediterranean climate means that its hills retain enough moisture to prevent fires. In August, however, the Diablo Winds blow in from the East, further drying out hill vegetation and making it easier for wildfires to spread. Wind, unforeseen and uncontrollable, is one of the most dangerous components of fire; the 1991 conflagration began when the Diablo Winds started, and firefighters had to wait for the winds die down before they could stop the flames.

So what aspects of wildfire can we control? According to the FEMA, vegetation management.

Under its proposal, most of the trees cut would be Blue Gum Eucalyptus, though some Monterey Pines and Acacias would also bite the dust.

California Eucalyptus were imported by settlers in the late 1800s for lumber production. The trees turned out to be terrible for building houses, but they liked it here and spread rapidly in the Bay Area climate, often displacing native plants and wildlife. Their growth was so rapid that one 1877 San Francisco newspaper wrote satirically: “In Australia, where this thing grows wild, the country is so healthy that people have to go to New Zealand to commit suicide…This absurd vegetable is now growing all over this state.”

The FEMA plan doesn’t take kindly to immigrant vegetation, even the hearty sort.  The plan aims to “preserve oak and bay trees and convert dense scrub, eucalyptus forest, and non-native pine forest to grassland with islands of shrubs.”

An estimated 400,000 trees would be converted to wood chips or logs over a 10-year period, and crews would apply herbicides to Eucalyptus stumps to prevent regrowth. 

According to FEMA’s environmental impact statement, the long-term environmental impact would be worth the short-term consequences to native plant and animal life.

The plan, however, has been met with opposition from many directions.

The Hills Conservation Network sued FEMA in March over the plan, arguing that cutting Eucalyptus tree forests is unnecessary and more environmentally detrimental than managing the understory of dry brush that spreads fires quickly. Dan Grassetti, president of the small group, says that “the result of cutting down so many trees, as we’ve seen in places in the hills where they’ve already done it, is an immediate invasion of thistle, hemlock, broom and poison oak, which are species that no one want on both sides of the issue, because they’re extremely fire prone.”

Since there are no replanting plans in the proposals, he and other critics also argue that the dry wood chips, influx of brush and broom, and lack of shade would make the hills more susceptible to fire, not less.  The majority of the 13,000 public comment letters sent to FEMA in 2013 were critical of the plan, and the issue has been a hot-button one at recent Oakland city council meetings. Comments included accusations that the plan was an attempt to “return the hills to some imagined Eden,” and the reasoning for the plan “myopic and faulted.”  One contributor even noted a possibly dire consequence that had hitherto been overlooked: “Hikers and others using the project areas will experience increased exposure to the sun.”

While sunscreen might solve the latter problem, the cause of forest fires is less easily remedied. David Maloney, the retired chief of fire prevention at Oakland Army Base who was on the post-1991 fire taskforce, agrees with the critics, saying the primary cause of the 1991 fire was actually the dry grass along the hills that quickly carried flames to nearby houses. He draws no distinction between species of tree in terms of hazard level, and argues that the FEMA plan is actually land transformation masquerading as fire prevention: “There is nothing wrong with advocating for native plant restoration. There is nothing wrong with advocating for land transformation. There is everything wrong with trying to effect either one or both under the guise of wildfire hazard management.” 

Critics such as Maloney and Grassetti contend that if trees are thinned it should be without regard to their species, challenging the assumption that non-native plants should always be removed in favor of native ones.  “Nothing stays still in nature,” says Grassetti.  “Although some people think these species shouldn’t be here, they have been here a lot longer than any of us have been here, and I think people value what we have—we have the shade canopy, raptor habitat, slope stability, fog drip environment, a very moist environment as a result of the trees, and people really like it.” 

He also argues that the main issue at hand should be fire prevention, not the eradication of non-native species: It is arbitrary, he says, to idealize a particular group of species from an earlier era. “What’s so magical about exactly 150 years ago?  Why that environment?” 

While Klatt also thinks fire safety should be the first priority, he sees the native plants issue as one that “can’t be separated” from the issue of fire prevention.  The height of eucalyptus (about 200 feet tall for a mature tree) and the flammable oils in their leaves, he says, make it a necessity to remove them from the hills. He  approaches the issue from a financial perspective; cutting down trees, applying herbicide to the stumps, and then converting stumps to wood chips, he claims, is much less expensive than regular brush maintenance when you also factor in the cost of removing dead or fallen trees.

It’s also far less expensive than the cost of a large-scale fire. 

Ironically, the other group suing FEMA over the plan is more in line with Klatt’s thinking, and wants the opposite outcome as the Hills Conservation Network. The Sierra Club is advocating for completely removing Eucalyptus from the hills. 

Jon Kaufmann of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy  sides with the Sierra Club’s goals but ultimately sees the FEMA plan as better than nothing. Although FEMA’s environmental impact statement doesn’t call for replanting native trees, Kaufmann is confident that once the Eucalyptus, which dwarf the other trees and suck up most of their water and nutrients, are removed, native oaks and bays will repopulate the area. “The [native] trees are there already,” he says, pointing to regrowth that has already started in parts of Claremont Canyon, where many Eucalyptus were chopped down in the last decade to promote native plant growth.  

Are Eucalyptus trees really as bad as all that? Berkeley professor of environmental design and landscape architecture John Radke says that Blue Gums do pose more of a fire hazard than other Bay Area species.  The pods alone, Radke says, were a significant factor in the spread of the 1991 Oakland fire. The height of their trunks also means that burning leaves and pods get blown farther than embers from, say, an oak tree.

Berkeley environmental sciences professor Reginald Barrett  goes so far as to say “It’s hard to think of something that would be more flammable or dangerous than the Eucalyptus.” He’s in favor of removing the whole species from the hills with the use of specifically applied herbicide, which, he says, is the only way to ensure they won’t grow back. 

Radke, however, has a distaste for herbicides, and thinks plastic tarping would be a less harmful way of killing the stumps. He is still in Barrett’s camp as far as eradication goes.  “It’s a pity,” he says, “because I think they’re beautiful trees.”

Which is most likely to minimize large-scale fires?  Which proposal has the least impact on flora and fauna? Which method is most cost effective? There is no easy solution to each of these complex fire and conservation problems.  Instead, there are many, and that’s part of the problem; though environmentalists across the board share many common goals, their ways of achieving them are sharply divided.  Which might make for more lively town council meetings, but means fewer concrete changes in the short term.

One thing’s for sure: The FEMA decision is only part of a long-term effort to adapt to the changing natural world and its conjunction with our encroaching man-made world (another is that none of the environmental groups are likely to relinquish any ground in the near future).

Confronted as we are with an overwhelming equation that includes weather patterns, climate change, and development, ultimately fire is inevitable and the best we can do is minimizing its spread is the best we can likely do.  Or, as Barrett puts it (slightly more cynically): “I think it’s fair to say that all that country’s gonna burn up sooner or later, regardless of what kind of vegetation we have.”

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I think the entire tree removal plan is INSANE. Here we are facing a GLOBAL carbon issue, and you want to cut down 400,000 trees…and not replace them? BRILLIANT idea. Furthermore…these are not 400,000 small shade tress, but 400,000 two hundred foot tall trees that scrub how much carbon dioxide from the air everyday? If FEMA had a an eventual reforestation plan…or better yet, a multi-tiered plan of removal along with replanting (over time), that would have some logical merit. To clear cut and entire forest as a preventative measure to avoid a potential future fire is MADNESS. The entire non-native argument is vapid. Guess what people! Most of us HUMANS are non-native to the bay area…maybe we should do the environment a favor and deport ourselves immediately.
Eucalyptus trees are not good sinks for carbon. They deplete the soil of carbon, which makes them the worst choice when it comes to sequestration in forests. Lop, scatter, and chip them on site, that will help put some of the carbon back in the soil. Native Bay/Oak forests are net carbon sinks, so the plan is actually a very good one in regards to carbon sequestration. Additionally, the native forest is less water hungry than the invasive trees, which will help to keep the moisture in the hills and lower the risk of fire.
Bob, do you have a reference for your statement above? As an ecologist, I find it improbable that these massive Eucalyptus forests are a net source of carbon and that felling and chipping them all (with no plan to replant trees of other species) will lead to net sequestration of carbon. That seems exactly backwards. So a citation would be helpful here.
Garlon and Roundup, are both heavily toxic, carcinogenic in fact, according to WHO and many years of research of biotech independent studies. At least glyphosate is known to be antibiotic, hormone disruptor, metal chelator, and have teratogenic properties (meaning contraceptive). Basics about trees, whether native or not, teaches us that they sequester CO2, in HUGE AMOUNTS, while producing O2 for US, they regulate the rain pattern (through water cycle), they clean the air (in particular eucalyptus!), they support the ground structure while preventing erosion and slides, in particular in hills, they regulate the heat/cold cycles and balance the heat in particular in heavy populated areas, and yes, they do produce shade, they form a unique eco-system for many birds, insects, but most of all, they protect us from electromagnetic smog, through the amount of water they store. If it was not for the last item, I’d think everything else is so important, that the ‘cut plan’ must be really to protect the people on the hills from the fire caused by the ‘dangerous eucalyptus’, but actually what protection is this when carcinogenic chemicals are applied instead, and soils and waters will be intoxicated for years to come??? Both planned chemicals are heavily used by the GMO industry, which UC is known to support a LOT. Claremont Canyon Conservancy is tied with Nature Conservancy, which in turn is supported heavily by ALL BIOTECH companies, including Monsanto and Dow Chemicals, exactly the 2 companies which produce the Garlon and roundup poisons. How far one needs to go to see exposed population everywhere to a new 5G technology with short wavelengths electromagnetic radiation, which has only one enemy, vegetation in form of toll trees… My imagination sounds like conspiracy, but given the facts about disastrous GMO ‘food’ technology, which is real, one should maybe doubt a little the arguments about ‘fire protection’ or some ‘native plants restoration’, while having some of the still healthy trees for more than 100 years already around?? Btw. governmental fire hazard publications, the most extensive ones from 2013, when talking about thinning, mention every single time, the healthy toll trees are not contributing to fires, these are the ones one should leave and thin the smaller ones. These documents never mention ANY CHEMICALS!!!
I think we’d better reserve these trees. As the environment we are living is destroyed, trees can help a lot to improve it. Cutting more trees brings more disasters I believe. Caroline
All humans and all trees are native to planet earth; the chemicals are not. I suggest we look to the hours wasted before water tankers were allowed to take to the sky in 1991, and to the fact that volunteer citizens were turned away rather than utilized to watch roofs down wind with hoses in hand. Finally, while we have fear for our properties as an excuse for cutting trees, those iving near rain forests need farm land to raise food … and for profit. Climate change will increase fires as well as other disasters. The eucalptus are currently serving us in many ways. (incidentally, as a person who takes to the hills daily the Eucalyptus forests are lovely, and no “dirtier” than any other). Please expand your mind to the full picture, and search for better ways to protect your property.
Some people covet land more than the love the Planet. As such they exploit human fears that about fire and employ disinformation campaigns to further their aims. At a time of catastrophic climate change, UC Berkeley demonizes sacred hardwood trees that can live up to 500 years old, so that they will be denigrated, thereby easily razed without much protest, such that the land later developed. We cannot hope to live should we kill everything around us, for shame!
The Claremont and Strawberry Canyons are supposedly dedicated to ecological study. What do Berkeley ecology students and faculty think of the plan to remove large long time arbor residents? What unintended side effects concern them if they are asked? The use of the conservation areas for recreation is a gift to both the campus and the surrounding community . Community puts up with negatives of the campus and should be rewarded with this natural beauty. This is a public land grant institution.
These trees are alive, and as such, they are sacred. They are our silent warriors against climate change. Yet because they are silent, they need us to raise our voices to protect them. Dear Students and Faculty: Look up and rise up— as you did in the past when UC Berkeley students, staff and faculty set the stage in the 1960s and 1970s, awakening this Country to the racism both at home and abroad. It was the Berkeley residents that found the time to protest against the Vietnam War, that raised awareness about the need for greater Civil Rights and that confronted the corporations by launching the Divestiture Movement against South Africa. While the protesters then understood that it was a moral imperative, the stakes are no less high now. For the focus needs to be about saving the Planet from massive ecocide. Everyone is needed in this battle against the forces of commercialization. Such forces of greed move through our country, through our media, through our corporations, through our government and through our educational institutions. They must be exposed for what they are and combatted, for they threaten even humanity with extinction—as they ravenously commodify everything in their path. Awaken Berkeley!
Regarding the carbon issue around cutting down 400,000 trees: Assuming 1 ton of carbon per tree (since most of their weight is water) that’s 400,000 tons of carbon. This amount of carbon is a drop in the swimming pool compared to the amounts of coal that China and India and the rest of the world burn each year (10’s of billions of tons). And the amount of carbon potentially sequestered by these trees as they grow would correspond to their added mass each year so again that is very very small. So really, the potential carbon offset is not a compelling argument against the FEMA plan.
Regarding this statement in a previous reply “Garlon and Roundup, are both heavily toxic, carcinogenic in fact, according to WHO and many years of research of biotech independent studies.” : At least the part about Roundup is an exaggeration. The WHO finding on Roundup is very controversial in that the evidence against it scant and barely statistically significant. There is no consensus on this finding from scientists. For a balanced view on the finding take a look at this article from the New Yorker:
“So what aspects of wildfire can we control? According to the FEMA, vegetation management.” I appreciate the author’s work to give all sides a hearing, but this sentence can be misleading in appearing to be part of the summary of the just-described 1991 FEMA technical report on the fire. This 130-page study mentioned that the debris created by eucalyptus and pine added to the fuel load on the ground (p. 8). However, it said nothing about the trees themselves being particularly combustible, and the section on mitigation (p. 69) says nothing about removal of these trees. Most of the mitigation measures recommended had to do with fuel reduction in the interfaces with areas where people live, not trying to make the forests more fireproof.
I am confused. Many are passionate about removing “invasives” and “exotics” and restoring the native environment as it was some time ago. However, what they say they will create is serpentine prairies without the large mammals that once grazed there, and elsewhere blankets of wood chips. The serpentine grass can be maintained by bringing in goats (nice animals but not native). How are wood chips native?
This is an excellent article….balanced and mostly accurate. Here are a few facts regarding the issues that might help readers to evaluate this project. According to a study of aerial photographs of Bay Area parks and open space, eucalyptus and Monterey pine forests were smaller in the 1990s than they were in the 1930s. That is, there is no evidence that they have spread. (William Russell and Joe McBride, “Vegetation Change and Fire Hazard in the San Francisco Bay Area Open Spaces,” Landscape and Urban Planning, 2003) For that reason, the California Invasive Plant Council rates the invasiveness of blue gum eucalyptus as “limited.” Eucalyptus and Monterey pine are not inherently more flammable than the native trees that native plant advocates claim will replace them. The leaves of native bay laurel trees contain twice as much oil as eucalyptus leaves (Ron Buttery et. al., “California Bay Oil. I. Constituents, Odor Properties,” Journal Agriculture Food Chemistry, Vol. 22, No 5, 1974) and the fuel ladder to their crowns is much lower than eucalyptus, increasing the risk of crown fires. The “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” of the East Bay Regional Park District states explicitly that bay laurel is very flammable and recommends selective removal. Eucalyptus are sometimes blamed for casting more embers than native trees because they are taller than the oak-bay woodland. However, redwoods are as tall, if not taller, and they were also observed burning in the 1991 fire: On Vicente Road, “Two redwoods up the street caught fire like matchsticks.” (Margaret Sullivan, Firestorm: the study of the 1991 East Bay fire in Berkeley, 1993) Redwoods also have small cones about the side of the seed pods of eucalyptus. Yet, the Sierra Club is not suggesting that redwoods be destroyed to eliminate the risk of casting embers. Make no mistake, the FEMA projects are a massive native plant “restoration” that will increase fire hazards. Scientific evaluators of the project also say that the resulting landscape is unlikely to be native: “However, we question the assumption that the types of vegetation recolonizing the area would be native. Based on conditions observed during site visits in April 2009, current understory species such as English ivy, acacia, vinca sp., French broom, and Himalayan blackberry would likely be the first to recover and recolonize newly disturbed areas once the eucalyptus removal is complete. These understory species are aggressive exotics, and in the absence of proactive removal there is no evidence to suggest that they would cease to thrive in the area, especially the French broom which would be the only understory plant capable of surviving inundation by a 2-foot-deep layer of eucalyptus chips.” (URS Corp evaluation of UCB and Oakland FEMA projects)
It is important to know that nothing, no plant, animal nor human being, is impervious to fire. Yet UC Berkeley pairs its article with pictures of burning forests such that its readers will unconsciously associate Bay Area forests with fires. They want all who read their magazine to feel fear for their very lives—make no mistake about it. I think it is essential to question how they have framed the debate and ask why so many people have started targeting these large hardwood trees for removal, blaming them for fires which are both natural and man-made events. Do we flatter ourselves that we can protect ourselves by killing everything around us—whether it through razing sacred forests, bombing oil rich lands, or assassinating leaders of governments who oppose our country’s interests? By demonizing all that seems to stand in our way—whether we call them “non-native” or “alien”, “invasive” or “incendiary”, we prove that we have lost our larger perspective and a true understanding of the sacredness of all life on Earth. We are living a small-minded, anthropocentric existence in which we project our fears about our own mortality on those that are different from us. These trees are living beings, and they have a different way of knowing than we do, even though they cannot speak for themselves. They are austere, living on minimal water, and able to live 500 years, if allowed to do so. We can learn a great deal from them, for they are all-loving and all-generous. They provide us with much needed oxygen, clean our air of particulates, diminish rising temperatures, mitigate carbon dioxide levels and provide essential habitat for vulnerable animals. They work for us every single day of their lives. Conversely, it seems that UC Berkeley—as well as the politicians of Oakland who have been bankrolled by the developers—covet the land on which these trees stand. As such, these trees need us to raise our voices to protect them. For our government, along with its institutions and the corporations that largely rule it, have not been acting as stewards of public lands but as venture capitalists. We must come to understand that we cannot continue to raze the forests of the world and expect that we shall live! The time to fight for these trees lives—and our lives—is now, or never.

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