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

July 9, 2015
by Natalie Stevenson
Berkeley hills

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.” 

Fire destruction

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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