Feds Pull Millions in Funding for Tree Thinning in East Bay Hills

The move by FEMA comes on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the worst firestorm in East Bay history.


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FEMA pulled funding for a plan to remove eucalyptus trees from UC Berkeley and city of Oakland property in the hills.

Kai Schreiber/Flickr(CC)

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the East Bay Hills Fire, the federal government has decided to withdraw millions of dollars of funding for a plan to remove what many people believe was a primary culprit in that deadly blaze: Eucalyptus trees. The Federal Emergency Management Agency made it official on September 16 that it would no longer award the city of Oakland and UC Berkeley $3.5 million to thin eucalyptus trees in the East Bay hills. As a result, those agencies likely will have to table their tree-thinning plan, just as the fall fire season gets underway.

“We’re very disappointed,” said Sue Piper, who chairs the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District’s advisory board. “We’ve been waiting for about ten years to get this money to address some of our most fire-prone areas—like the areas on either side of the Caldecott Tunnel entrance.”

But Dan Grassetti, president of the Hills Conservation Network, which sued FEMA last year to stop the tree-cutting plan, said he is satisfied with FEMA’s decision. For years, he and his group have argued against clearing forested land, which he contends increases fire danger by allowing sunlight to hit the ground and prompt the growth of low-lying shrubbery. Grassetti argues that the best way to reduce a landscape’s fire risk is to clear that low-lying fuel layer while leaving most of the large trees standing.

But environmental groups that pushed for the removal of the invasive, non-native eucalyptus trees are unhappy with the decision to pull funding. “FEMA’s decision is inexplicable and makes the hills area more fire dangerous, which is contrary to what they’re supposed to be achieving,” said Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club East Bay Public Lands Committee. “The people who made this decision in Washington, D.C. won’t be around for the next big fire, and there will be another great fire.”

The battle over what to do about eucalyptus trees in the hills has raged ever since the East Bay Hills Fire tore through sections of Oakland and Berkeley on Oct. 20, 1991. The wildfire, also known as the Oakland Hills Firestorm, killed 25 people and destroyed 3,280 homes, apartments, and condos.

UC Berkeley

The Oct. 20, 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm was the worst fire in East Bay history.

For years, many environmental groups pushed for a complete removal of eucalyptus trees from the hills, arguing that the area should return to its native state. But hills residents objected to clear-cutting and worked to protect the eucalyptus trees. In recent years, FEMA agreed to a compromise plan that called for thinning the eucalyptus from the hills in order to reduce fire risk. The agency decided to award a total of $5.7 million to three public agencies that own major sections of the hills: the East Bay Regional Park District, UC Berkeley, and the city of Oakland. The Sept. 16 decision by FEMA to pull funding for tree thinning on UC Berkeley and city of Oakland property does not affect the park district’s thinning program; it will continue.

“We’re glad the East Bay parks got the funding they need to do their thinning project,” Grassetti said. “If there was a way to get UC and the City of Oakland to adopt more mainstream vegetation management than complete removal, we’d be supporting them, too.”

But many ecologists are fuming. La Force, who is also president of the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund, had been anticipating the removal of about 2,000 acres of eucalyptus trees for years in Oakland and on UC Berkeley property. La Force says eucalyptus trees are not only a pestilent invasive but also one of the most flammable plants around.

“FEMA decided 12 years ago to provide fire protection funding, and their initial plan at the time was to do what we want to do, which is remove the eucalyptus, restore the land, and reestablish native plants” said La Force.

That original plan was later watered down by replacing some of the tree removal with mere tree thinning—an action that frustrated La Force and other native plant advocates but looked like a step in the right direction to Grassetti. Still, he sued FEMA and the local agencies that were to receive its funding because he argued that Oakland and UC Berkeley still planned to fully remove swaths of forest.

Two months after Hills Conservation Network sued FEMA, the Sierra Club also sued—though the logic behind the environmental group’s suit was essentially the opposite: The Sierra Club said the East Bay park district’s thinning plans, which were to leave adult eucalyptus trees standing, was actually a fire risk.

Grassetti has argued that the money from FEMA was intended to be used to reduce fire danger—not simply eliminate nonnative plant species. The way Grassetti sees it, native plant enthusiasts essentially hijacked a project intended to protect homes against fire by making the case that eucalyptus trees are dangerously flammable and a serious fire risk.

“To restore this area to a condition it was in 200 years ago is an interesting idea, but it seems it has nothing to do with fire risk mitigation,” said Grassetti, a resident of Claremont Canyon who nearly lost his home in the 1991 fire. “If we’re really interested in reducing fire risks, we should clear the brush within the existing forests. Adult trees aren’t the main danger.”

Piper, who lost her home in the 1991 fire, said the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District had raised about $300,000 to match the recently yanked FEMA grant. Some of that, she said, could still be reallocated toward thinning out vegetation deemed prone to catching fire.

La Force warned that leaving adult eucalyptus trees standing in thick groves will ultimately worsen the very risk that FEMA and local agencies originally planned to eliminate. What’s more, thinning brush could wind up being a far more expensive task than razing whole forests, since the thinning of fallen bark and branches will become an ongoing job. The Sierra Cub has estimated this labor will cost taxpayers $250 million over the next 20 to 30 years.

“Reestablishing the native habitat is fiscally more sustainable,” La Force said. “If we just do forest thinning, it becomes a job that has to be carried out in perpetuity, and there won’t be the money to do it.” 

Published Sept. 16, 2016 at 5:04 p.m.

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