UC Berkeley expert talks about hillside tree removal plan


Eucalyptus is one of the non-native tree species that would be cut down under UC Berkeley’s fire risk reduction plan. Photo: Tracey Taylor

UC Berkeley has sought federal funds to cut down 22,000 non-native trees in Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon with the goal of reducing the risk of fires. The project is a continuation of work the university has been doing for the last decade on its land. There has been some opposition to the proposal, including from the Hills Conservation Network, who believe the scheme, while restoring native species, might actually increase fire risk. The proposed use of certain herbicides is also being debated.

The Hills Conservation Network is holding a public forum to discuss UC Berkeley’s plans on Wednesday June 12 at 7:30 pm at The Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar Street (at Arch).

Public comment to FEMA has been invited through June 17. As the public considers the project, UC Berkeley’s Tom Klatt, campus environmental manager and a member of the UC Fire Mitigation Committee, answered questions about the plan.

Why does UC Berkeley want to cut down trees in the hills?

In 1973, H.H. Biswell, professor of forestry and conservation at UC Berkeley, made this prophetic statement: “When eucalyptus waste catches fire, an updraft is created and strong winds may blow flaming bark for a great distance. I think the eucalyptus is the worst tree anywhere as far as fire hazard is concerned. If some of that flaming bark should be blown on to shake roofs in the hills we might have a firestorm that would literally suck the roofs off the houses. People might be trapped.”

Biswell was absolutely right. Eucalyptus, planted by land speculators, along with equally flammable Monterey pines, have been implicated in several disastrous conflagrations in the East Bay hills, especially the deadly 1991 firestorm that took 25 lives, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and cost $1.5 billion.

Reducing this risk means removing high-risk trees and vegetation.

Eucalyptus are a special risk because they drop tons of dead leaves and branches on the forest floor, litter that provides excessive fuel to fires. Their low branches serve as fuel ladders up to their high crowns, and their volatile oils burn hot and fast. When eucalyptus catch fire, flames shoot up to the crowns, which send embers flying. High winds can carry the embers across firebreaks and clearings and into residential areas.

Eucalyptus groves on steep hillsides — like those in the East Bay hills — are extremely flammable when hot Diablo winds of late summer and fall start blowing and make control of a moving flame front impossible until the winds stop.

As a result, CalFIRE (the state firefighting agency) has categorized the East Bay hills, particularly Berkeley and Oakland, as a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.


Tom Klatt, manager of Emergency Services, at work clearing trail and brush in Strawberry Canyon in December 2005. Photo: UC Berkeley NewsCenter/Jeffery Kahn

Is cutting down trees the only option for reducing the hazard?

Australia, where eucalyptus are native, uses prescribed burns to keep fuel loads below six tons per acre in wildland areas and two tons per acre near homes. Mechanical methods can also be used to remove large amounts of vegetation. But the practicability, costs and environmental impacts of doing so — and repeating the removal every five years — remains mind-boggling, especially on steep hillsides.

Reluctance to use prescribed burns in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills starts from the risk that a fire could escape near a residential area. Also, there is a lack of fire crews trained and experienced in the use of this technique near residential areas, and the climate window for prescribed fire on steep hillsides is narrow.  Prescribed fire also has an impact on air quality, and carries significant costs.

Furthermore, the blue gum eucalyptus groves in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills are significantly different and apparently more flammable than groves of the same or similar varieties of eucalyptus near cities in Australia, according to recent research.

Will more trees be planted to replace the eucalyptus?

Yes. In similar projects over the last 12 years, the university has found that native trees such as bay laurel, coast live oak, buckeye and willow readily colonize areas suitable for tree growth.  Some areas will convert to native scrub or grassland, depending upon the slope, aspect and soil conditions. Historically, the hills have not been as heavily forested as we now find them. Rather, grassland and scrubland was much more common, with tree growth following the creeks, riparian zones and north-facing slopes.

Don’t oaks and other native trees burn too?

Yes, all vegetation will burn, given the right conditions. However, our native plants produce less litter and live biomass (fuel) and don’t have the extreme ember-casting characteristics of the blue gum eucalyptus.

And what about all those wood chips. Why leave them there, and aren’t they a fire hazard too?

The wood chips do not pose a fire hazard. Composted wood chips produce only incidental flaming with smoldering as the primary form of combustion, according to research by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Retaining the wood chips also controls erosion, recycles nutrients and suppresses the germination of the millions of eucalyptus seeds that have accumulated beneath the trees.  These seeds are viable for up to 10 to 12 years, but covering the heaviest seed accumulations with chips kills these potential trees without the use of herbicide. Lastly, retaining biomass on site avoids thousands of truck trips needed to haul the material 100 miles to a waste-reuse facility and saves substantial taxpayer dollars.

Why is herbicide necessary?

The eucalyptus trees on UC land are not killed by felling alone. Virtually all of UC’s eucalyptus trees have been cut at least once, many of them twice prior to 2001.  It is estimated that more than 95 percent of the trees re-grew from their cut stumps. Had herbicide been used effectively in earlier work, this project would not be needed. However, the eucalyptus trees did re-grow, and instead of a single trunk, they grew as clusters of trunks, a far more hazardous condition from a fire-management perspective.

How will the environment be protected during application of a herbicide?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the use of herbicides is not likely to adversely affect either the endangered Alameda whipsnake nor the California red legged frog, and the National Marine Fisheries Services concluded there would be no adverse impact to fish or aquatic life proximate to the project areas. Strict best-management practices, rules and regulations will be followed at all times to ensure the application of herbicide is consistent with the hundreds of rules that regulate their use. These measures are fully outlined in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. (LINK) http://ebheis.cdmims.com

Some people are upset about this. What do you tell them?

There should be absolutely no confusion or argument about the serious nature of fire risks in the East Bay hills.

Under normal weather conditions, fires that start in the hills are efficiently controlled by firefighters, and do not usually reach residential areas. During most of the year, temperatures are moderate and vegetation is relatively moist and fire-safe. Summers bring overnight and morning fog along the hills until noon, with moist midday winds blowing westerly in from the coast.  Westerly winds can fan flames in a fire almost anytime during the year, but embers, if they are created, will be carried in an easterly direction away from East Bay hills’ residential areas.

However, there are a few red-flag days each year when all of the conditions are in place for extreme wildfire, usually during August through November. On these days, vegetation will experience a “perfect firestorm condition” with unusually hot temperatures above 90 degrees, humidity below 10 percent and strong Diablo winds blowing from the east, over the high ridge tops and down leeward slopes into densely populated residential areas. Any eucalyptus grove fire that occurred under these conditions could produce millions of burning embers and firebrands that could blow over fuel breaks and other cleared areas and then drop to ignite homes and landscapes.

Three official reports — the 1995 Hills Emergency Forum Vegetation Management Consortium Plan, the 2010 Park District Fire Mitigation Plan EIR, and the 2013 FEMA East Bay Hills Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction EIS — clearly document the problem and identify eucalyptus and pine groves as contributors to this area’s high-risk fire hazard potential.

As a responsible agency, UC is fulfilling its obligation to mitigate this risk on land under its control.

How will the tree-management project affect wildlife?

The project should be beneficial to many species of wildlife, resulting in both greater diversity and abundance of native plants and animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that the UC project will remove zero acres of habitat suitable for the endangered whipsnake and will result in over 120 acres of new snake habitat, as well as reversing the ongoing loss of habitat as the eucalyptus groves expand over time.

Has this been done before, and if so, what were the effects?

While the earliest UC efforts were not successful in eliminating the eucalyptus, projects undertaken using the FEMA-proposed methodology have resulted in the removal of over 19,000 re-sprouted trees on 185 acres in the UC hill area over the past 12 years. Not only have the eucalyptus and pine been effectively extirpated, native plant and animal communities have grown phenomenally without the competition from the large, tall, invasive trees.

A demonstration forest is growing at the top of Claremont Canyon; the south side of the road was cleared of eucalyptus and pine, while the north side has a dense eucalyptus overstory. The treated side has achieved a substantial biodiversity in just over a decade, and is on the path to becoming a sustainable, native-plant community that is thriving and teeming with life. Of course, these plants can burn, but are expected to burn with far less intensity, with lower frequency and in smaller fire footprints. Most importantly, eucalyptus trees and the potential for their shooting “roman candle” embers has been eliminated, successfully mitigating the fire risk to many thousands of Berkeley and Oakland residents.

More information about the project is available on a UC Berkeley fact sheet and on the the project website.

Written comments may be sent to FEMA before midnight on June 17, 2013 by email at EBH-EIS-FEMA-RIX@fema.dhs.gov, by FAX at (510) 627-7147, or by mail to P.O. Box 72379, Oakland, CA 94612-8579.

This article was first published by UC Berkeley News Center on May 31.

UC Berkeley seeks funds to cut down 22,000 non-native trees [05.17.13]

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  • Mrdrew3782

    I say go for it. The trees are a fire hazard and the whole area would look much better with native trees.

  • linda stone

    Thanks for the analysis of concerns. I am reassured that this project is well thought out will succeed.

  • Steve Redmond

    The expertise is admirable and it is hard to understand objections to managing this potential for disaster with loss of human life and property a certainty without taking action. The Oakland Hills fire was an omen as to what can happen again without taking proper precautions.

    Meanwhile, I have a plan to obviate fire danger in densely populated areas like Oakland and Berkeley/ Build a system of water storage tanks interconnected and operated by computer which can spray primarily by gravity and pressure spray protected from fire disruption. These tanks would hold millions of gallons of water only to be used to suppress fires. Sensors could determine heat levels and spray appropriate areas as needed to stop fires in their tracks.

    Sound expensive? Consider the 5 billion dollar cost of the Oakland Hills Fire and 25 dead and a computer operated suppression system near heavily populated areas sound cost effective.

  • Woolsey

    Tanks and distribution systems are always vulnerable to disruption by an earthquake – as is the current system of water mains and fire hydrants, of course. Home foam fire suppression systems would likely be effective, but they are expensive. Maybe neighborhoods could get together and buy one or a few foam systems to deal with a fire moving towards their neighborhood?

  • guest

    If fire risk mitigation and the cost in dollars and lives saved were the only issues here, proceeding would be a fait accompli. Unfortunately in Berkeley, there are other perspectives to consider:

    – nut job amateur ‘scientists’ with a degree in Googling who say it’s a hoax.

    – foil hatted empaths who feel the impact of herbicides on plant life a mile away.

    – old spirits who sense the presence of loved ones in the eucalyptus trees.

    – arsonist, posing as preservationists, who are just waiting for the right opportunity.

  • iris fleur

    I’d love to see the Berkeley hills with their native trees. You know, the ones the eucalyptus shut out.
    Our neigbors had to remove their eucalyptus. The real estate company insisted befor the home went on the market.

  • neaux_comment

    Eucalyptus smell like cat pee. Nothing lives under them and they explode. Adios amigos!

  • vrover

    Ms Taylor – You have done a disservice to the important message of this article by listing HCN’s program. HCN is the spearhead of the don’t cut the eucs nutcases. They have spread a lot of propaganda about the innocuous nature of eucs and a lot of other claptrap. Please don’t give them credibility by listing them in this article

  • Pete Harleman

    While this article appears to be well reasoned, it simple ignores many of the issues surrounding the massive cutting of trees and the use of thousands of gallons of herbicide. In addition, the danger of fire from extensive grasslands is well documented, and, in fact, most fires start out as grass fires as did the long ago fire in the east bay hills. This issues needs much more extensive research and discussion. Cutting all “non native” trees is incredibly ludicrous. The wildlife that lives in those trees, the shade and positive water control aspects of the trees, the heritage of the “green” canyons versus the desert like weedlands has to be considered. Finally, there is no reason for FEMA to spend “emergency” money on an issue that is not an ermergency, and that might even create a greater fire hazard.

  • Max

    Gosh, what hooey. Of course fire danger will persist, but this will reduce it significantly.

  • The_Sharkey

    It’s too bad the UC won’t be planting native trees to replace the ones they’re cutting down.
    If they were, it would silence almost all the complaints.

  • Mbfarrel

    “In similar projects over the last 12 years, the university has found
    that native trees such as bay laurel, coast live oak, buckeye and willow
    readily colonize areas suitable for tree growth.”

  • anothernonymous

    >This issues needs much more extensive research and discussion.<

    The place objectors try to send projects to die.

  • The_Sharkey

    And how long does that take? How long will the area be highly flammable grassland before new trees grow? Five years? Ten years? Twenty?

  • George

    I’m a bit confused as to why Berkeleyside is republishing this one-sided UC Berkeley public affairs piece from two weeks ago, rather than doing its own news story and gathering different perspectives on this important issue. Here is my question for Tom Klatt: When is UC Berkeley preparing to conduct CEQA review on this project?

  • BrianY

    Mr. Klatt seems to equivocate in his response–he says “Yes”, when asked if replacement trees will be planted, but then follows it up with the colonization remark, which seems to imply that they’re going to rely on natural processes only. Everything I’ve read previously indicates that UC is *not* going to plant native trees as part of their project, and I (gulp) agree with The Sharkey that it would help their cause tremendously if they would agree to do so.

    Are they actually changing their tune? Although Berkeleyside didn’t conduct this interview (if that’s, properly speaking, what it is), I wonder if you’d be able to follow up on this point?

  • BrianY

    Is CEQA relevant to this kind of project? I thought it only applies to construction.

  • George

    Yes. EBRPD has already done CEQA for its portion of the project.

  • George: We published an article on the tree cutting — for which we spoke to people who opposed the plans — last month. (A link to it is published at the foot of the story above.) We felt readers would be interested in this Q&A as it covers many of the questions being raised around the issue.

  • Berkeley resident

    This seems to be more editorial than article, if Berkeleyside would like to take an editorial view on the issue please do so and be open about it. Full disclosure is important to have credible journalism. The East Bay Express published an article today on the same topic citing a credible critique of UC Berkeley’s tree clearing program done by a well respected environmental consulting firm it may be worth interviewing that firm as well.

  • Terry Shames

    The one thing I haven’t seen discussed is whether felling the trees will increase erosion problems. I don’t think grasses prevent erosion the way tree roots do. Maybe this was addressed, but I haven’t seen it anywhere.

  • guest

    I guess I’m willing to actually listen to the experts, since I’m not one. Maybe that makes me a sheeple :-)

  • guest

    Bside, forgive the spiels on homegrown journalistic ethics and hokum science. Berkeley is a city rife with critics and authorities, sprung full grown from their own imaginations.

  • Guest

    Actually grasses do a better job of preventing sheet erosion, which is the issue on non riparian hillsides. This is in addition to the mulch they mention will be overlaying the open ground. Also, since the trees are being cut, their root systems obviously will remain where they are for a very long time. My landlord cut the eucs in our backyard in the hills about 10 years ago, we now have a grove of volunteer 20 foot tall oaks underlain with grasses, and have had no erosion problems whatsoever.

  • Pete and Susan Harleman

    Anyone who wants to get a preview of UC’s tree removal activities need only visit the fire trail at Centennial to witness workers without supervision felling trees and chopping branches while trampling trillium, monkey flowers, wild currant, wild rose and hacking oak while disrupting bird life, etc. Whole attacks on any environment are foolish, and the plan to cut down thousands of trees if fraught with peril and resplendent with false assumptions and faulty hopes. Hopefully FEMA will withhold “emergency” funding for what is clearly not an emergency.

  • guest

    Pete & Susan,

    The earth weeps for birds disturbed and flowers trampled. But cures are by nature invasive and to a degree, killing. If you two had a microscope when penicillin was being developed, would you have rallied for infectious bacteria?

  • David Anderson

    Read the East Bay Express article. It’s not clear that cutting down the trees would reduce fire risk, or that trees in these areas pose a fire risk. And anyone who spends time in the hills knows that this would destroy one of the most beautiful areas we have. I trust these UCB “experts” about as far as I can throw them.

  • Anti-“expert”

    Asked “will more trees be planted to replace the eucalyptus?” Klatt responds, “Yes.” But what he then goes on to describe is NOT “planting,” which implies active intervention–digging, placing a seedling, etc.–but merely waiting for the hillside to seed itself. This Berkeley “expert” either doesn’t understand English or is happy to lie to make his case seem more palatable.

  • Ringtail Cats

    It is impossible to eradicate eucalyptus (or monterey pines) since their seeds already coat the east bay hills, reaching down deep into the soil.

    The efforts required to even temporarily decimate their population, what with clear-cutting vast groves, use of thousands of gallons of herbicide, severe soil disturbance, erosion suffocating streams, etc., will wreak havoc on the local ecosystems, viciously slaughtering the innumerable birds, butterflies, and furry creatures that live in the eucalyptus forests.

    Besides, fires can still burn in the “native” forests. True, eucalyptus trees have more flammable bark and fallen wood/leaves, but these traits were actually adapted in Australia to survive regular, low intensity fires.

    Virtually all forests in California, and indeed the USA, were regularly burned by Indians for ten thousand years. Our recent prohibition of this controlled burning is the main cause of the severe, uncontrollable fires we have seen in the last century, not “invasive” eucalyptus trees.

    Was not every species, including us, “invasive” at some point?

    It’s hard to find a eucalyptus leaf not full of holes left by little herbivores. Like it or not, the eucalyptus is here to stay, and we should learn to love it as the other animals clearly are.