On May 7, 2013, Dan Grassetti, President of the Hills Conservation Network (HCN) posted a petition on MoveOn.org protesting the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) created by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in support of a grant for fire hazard reduction in the Oakland hills. Using terms like “deforestation” and “clear cutting,” the petition has garnered over 4,500 signatures and mobilized attendance at a May 18 public hearing on the plan.
HCN’s main objection to the FEMA projects is UC Berkeley’s plan to eliminate eucalyptus groves from 300 acres of land owned by the University and the City of Oakland in Strawberry Canyon, Claremont Canyon and Frowning Ridge. “There is a concerted effort to identify this problem as caused by non-natives,” said Grassetti. “We think this is a fraudulent use of money to advance ideological issues on public lands rather than an honest attempt to deal with the fire problem.”
David Maloney, a retired Oakland fire fighter who served on the Task Force on Emergency Preparedness & Community Restoration after the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, called the EIS “a land transformation plan which is masquerading as a fire hazard reduction plan,” adding, “It stands fire science on its head.” Maloney noted that, in the Oakland Hills fire, “the radiant heat from the houses caught the trees on fire,” not the other way around.
1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm
The current debate hinges on two questions: What caused the 1991 Oakland Hills fire? And what can humans do to prevent the next fire?
The answers are multi-faceted. Wood shake roof shingles on houses in the hills were extremely flammable (statewide building codes have since been changed to require fire-resistant roofing materials). Mutual aide crews from other cities were unable to hook their fire hoses to non-standard hook-ups in the hills (they have since been replaced). Water supply to the hills dried up because pump station wires burned in the fire (those have since been undergrounded).
“Thankfully, most of those problems have been fixed,” said Grassetti.
Perhaps the most important factor was the hot, dry Diablo winds that whipped through the hills that day. Jon Keeley, a research scientist with USGS and Adjunct Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, said, “Under these severe fire weather conditions, fire spread is extremely rapid and the area has a history of devastating fires.” A FEMA report on the fire adds: “in California, when the Santa Ana (or Diablo) wind is blowing, and a fire occurs in a susceptible area, there is very little that any current fire suppression forces or technologies can do to resist the spread of the fire.”
HCN isn’t the only citizen group with a position on fire hazard reduction in the Oakland hills: Claremont Canyon Conservancy, which supports the FEMA funded projects, posted its own MoveOn Petition on May 19. The Conservancy (which did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article), aims to be “a catalyst for the long-term protection and restoration of the canyon’s natural environment and an advocate for comprehensive fire safety along its wildland/urban interface,” according to its website.
UC Berkeley has powerful allies in government as well. In 2005, then Oakland City Council Member Jean Quan sponsored a resolution to exempt the FEMA project from Oakland’s policy of no pesticides on public lands so that the herbicide Garlon could be used to kill eucalyptus. In a 2010 letter obtained through a Freedom of Information request by HCN, Senator Dianne Feinstein (whose husband, Richard Blum, is a member of UC’s Board of Regents), sent a strongly worded letter urging FEMA to move the project’s environmental review forward quickly. Neither Mayor Quan nor Senator Feinstein responded to request for comment by press time.
At the center of the controversy is a tree: fast growing Australian blue gum eucalyptus was planted in the mid-1800s for timber and has become part of the Bay Area landscape – loved by some, hated by others.
Tom Klatt, Environmental Projects Manager, Physical and Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley, has been spearheading projects to remove eucalyptus from the University’s land for the past 11 years. He said that the eucalyptus groves in the project area have been cut down repeatedly in the past 50 years. Sprouts from the stumps of the previously cut trees are now “over 100 feet tall.”
Disagreeing with the characterization of the proposed treatments as “clear cuts,” Klatt noted, “In this case, we’re purposely leaving the native trees and shrubs there.” He sees this as effective fire hazard reduction: “Eucalyptus burn vigorously, they burn explosively and they burn prolifically.”
Grassetti countered that eucalyptus is no more fire prone than many native species, opining that, “If you are serious about fire risk reduction, you can’t favor natives over non-natives.”
The FEMA report on the 1991 fire, suggests, under the Mitigation heading: “Fuel control measures including controlled burns, clearing of dead wood, cutting tall grass and brush, grazing to thin vegetation in particular areas and similar measures,” but doesn’t mention removal of certain tree species.
The Task Force report commissioned by Oakland’s and Berkeley’s mayors, includes this prescription: “Do not target particular species such as Blue Gum Eucalyptus or Monterey Pine for eradication or exemption from tree regulation policies, but require regular maintenance to reduce fire hazard.” The treatment proposed by UC Berkeley under the FEMA grant targets both those species for eradication.
The comment period on the FEMA EIS closes June 17.