For residents of the East Bay hills, the question is not whether another fire will happen, but how bad the event will be. The hills are prone to particularly destructive fires, a result of hot, dry weather in summer and fall, huge amounts of flammable vegetation that litter the hills' forests, and the limited access that firefighters have to the area. Over the past century, fifteen major wildfires have raged through the hills. The worst, of course, was the 1991 firestorm, also known as the Tunnel Fire, which killed 25 people and destroyed thousands of homes.
In the years after the fire, UC Berkeley, the City of Oakland, and the East Bay Regional Park District began devising plans to cut down on the number of trees and plants in the hills in order to reduce the fuel load during future fires. The three public agencies then applied for millions of dollars in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for their vegetation-management plans.
Oakland and UC Berkeley came up with similar proposals, both of which called for the wholesale removal of eucalyptus trees, a highly combustible nonnative species that was widely blamed for fanning the 1991 firestorm. Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, strongly backed these plans, while some neighborhood groups staunchly opposed them on the grounds that they amounted to clear-cutting. The East Bay Regional Park District, by contrast, settled on a plan to gradually thin the eucalyptus and other vegetation over time.
In March, FEMA announced the approval of $5.6 million in grants to UC Berkeley, the City of Oakland, and the East Bay Regional Park District. But in its approval of the funds, FEMA advised UC Berkeley and Oakland to adhere to the "thinning" method similar to the one proposed by the park district — rather than their clear-cutting plans.
Since FEMA's announcement, environmental and community groups have both criticized FEMA's decision — from opposite points of view. They've argued either that the eucalyptus removal plans go too far or not far enough. Both sides argue that the plans will not help prevent or limit future fires. Some fire experts, however, disagree.
Keith Gilless, dean of UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, said the thinning plan likely will be effective. The eucalyptus trees pose a larger risk in the hills, he explained, than in other locations, because there are so many of them and they're clustered together. It's not just that the trees are "quite flammable," he said, but that the eucalyptus groves in the hills are so dense.
In dense forests with closed canopies, he said, flames can jump through the treetops, propagating what's known as a crown fire. Thinning the trees and therefore reducing the canopy, he said, would help reduce the risk of a crown fire in the hills. "Looking at this as someone who's been a forester for more than thirty years, I think actually reducing the amount of forest cover is highly appropriate given the risk that the current vegetation matrix poses to people of Oakland and Berkeley," Gilless said.
He said that FEMA's plan tries to achieve an appropriate balance between the ecological and cultural aesthetic of the region. "Emotions do run high in this because people like forests and trees," Gilless said. "The right plan is always a bit of a compromise between a lot of different ideologies."
But some neighborhood groups contend that eucalyptus trees are still being scapegoated in the FEMA plan, and the federal agency's directive will result in the widespread removal of trees — more akin to clear-cutting than thinning. Dan Grassetti, president of the Hills Conservation Network, contends that the worries about eucalyptus are overblown. He also raises concerns about the fact that the public agencies intended to apply herbicide to the eucalyptus tree stumps in order to prevent future sprouting. (In its report, FEMA stated that herbicides would be applied by hand and its effects would not be significant.)
"It's true that the eucalyptus trees shed litter, but it's also true that every tree has some sort of detritus," he said. Grassetti said that instead of focusing on removing eucalyptus, it would make more sense to eliminate the ground fuels and regularly clear the understory — the layer of vegetation that accumulates on forest floors.
But the Sierra Club and the group Claremont Canyon Conservancy contend that the thinning plan won't be nearly as effective as permanently removing and replacing the eucalyptus trees with native vegetation. Norman La Force of the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter, calls the thinning plan a "complete 180" from the earlier proposals. He noted the danger that eucalyptus trees pose in propagating fire, and questions why FEMA would not endorse removing more of the nonnative trees.
"I like eucalyptus, too. They're fine trees in the appropriate location," said La Force, who is also president of the group Sustainability, Parks, Recycling, and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund. "But they seem to have some notion that trying to restore a habitat that was here and that is better in terms of fire safety is the wrong thing to do because we already have the eucalyptus. That's like saying BP has already destroyed the Gulf, so let's just start putting oil pumps all over the Gulf of Mexico. Just because that's the way it is doesn't mean that's the way it should be."
When it announced its grant approvals, FEMA stated that it had determined that eradicating eucalyptus, as UC Berkeley and Oakland had proposed, did not "satisfy the purpose and need for the grant of fire reduction" — and therefore didn't meet the hazard mitigation program eligibility requirements. FEMA also requested that the agencies involved adopt a "unified methodology" that is modeled after the park district's thinning approach.
Although the Hills Conservation Network and the Sierra Club have opposite views about eucalyptus and the FEMA plan, both have filed lawsuits against the federal agency, raising issues of public transparency and alleging that FEMA didn't fully consider other alternatives to the plan it put forth. Both groups said they're concerned that the "unified methodology" is ambiguous and needs to be compared to more alternative proposals.
Both groups are in talks with FEMA, and hope to reach a settlement. FEMA representatives said they couldn't comment on the pending litigation. Both sides noted that it will be a while before any vegetation removal plan proceeds in the hills. (The exact number of eucalptus trees that would be cut down also is ambiguous, because the plans set goals based on the number of trees per acre rather than on the number of trees to be removed.)
Jon Kaufman, director of stewardship for the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, said that, although his group supports the Sierra Club's view and thinks the FEMA plan will not remove enough eucalyptus trees, his organization opted not to join the lawsuit. He said that the group just wants to move forward. "This has been going on for more than ten years," Kaufman said, noting that the drought and the bone-dry conditions in the hills this year increase the risk of another disastrous and deadly blaze. "We really don't want to delay things any further. The sooner we can make the canyon more fire-safe, the better."