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Oakland Firestorm Anniversary: The Fight Over Eucalyptus Trees Continues

| October 19, 2011
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Another tree, another controversy.

Anyone around for the Oakland-Berkeley Hills fire remembers eucalyptus trees got a lot of blame for fueling the blaze. The problem with eucalyptus? One vegetation manager I spoke to called them “junky,” meaning they spread lots of dry debris: leaves, seed pods and lower branches. They grow quickly and in dense stands, and if they catch fire their flaming bark can fly off and spread the flames.

At the turn of the 20th century, developers planted two million of the trees in the East Bay hills. In their native Australia, their oils were blamed for exacerbating a series of fires in 2009, which killed almost 200 people. This animation about eucalyptus trees’ high flammability was done for a TV special:


This post by KQED’s Quest unit says “The Park Service estimates that eucalyptus was responsible for 70% of the energy released though combustion of vegetation.”

A report on KTVU today quoted Sean Walsh with the Wildfire Prevention District Citizen Committee (this comes around 2:36 in the video):

Fifteen years the Oakland Park district has been trying to work on a plan to do major hazardous brush mitigation. Eucalyptus is sort of enemy number one. 15 years we’ve been trying to take the trees out and we’re still stuck not removing them.

The report says Walsh and others say a small band of reactionary critics are holding up the removal of the non-native fire danger, and that the Sierra Club has weighed in in favor of removing the trees and brush.

So who are the groups championing the eucalyptus and what are their arguments?

One group called POET (Preserve Our Eucalyptus Trees) was fighting for the eucalyptus well before the Oakland fire. They took on the state Department of Parks and Recreation when they wanted to cut eucalyptus on Angel Island. The trees were removed.

Another group – the Hills Conservation Network (HCN) – started 6 years ago in response to what founders saw as clear cutting in the hills by UC Berkeley. The university received 6 million dollars from FEMA to continue clearing trees, but HCN leader Dan Grassetti says the group intervened and got FEMA to ask for an Environmental Impact Study and more nuanced vegetation control strategy. A new version of the university’s plan for the hills is due for public review in January.

Meanwhile HCN filed a lawsuit last year against the East Bay Regional Park District when the park district created a plan to remove eucalyptus from the East Bay hills. From HCN’s press release:

The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) plans to destroy more than 500,000 trees, adding some 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and a massive amount of pesticides to the environment…

The Hills Conservation Network (HCN) filed suit challenging EBRPD’s vegetation management program. The lawsuit alleges numerous violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). If implemented, EBRPD’s program will irreparably harm the beautiful, vibrant and diverse ecosystem of the East Bay hills.

The lawsuit settled in August 2011. Grassetti says there are plant species that everyone can agree are bad for fire control, like broom. He says eucalyptus are a problem not because of the tree, but because of the debris it drops and advocates that the debris be cleaned more thoroughly. His argument is that native plant proponents have seized on the fire as a way of getting rid of trees that are not native to the area.

In 2010, the New York Times ran an excellent story about the controversy and Dan Grassetti:

Mr. Grassetti, who runs a technology training company, disputes the claim that the eucalyptus poses any more fire risks than other tree. His group, using a big fan, has done its own experiments, lighting eucalyptus leaves and and bay leaves, and seeing how far each traveled. (Eucalyptus leaves dropped to the ground.)

Fire management, he said, has become tangled with an effort to rid the hills of non-native plants for native ones. After the Oakland Hills 1991 fire, “the eucalyptus was scapegoated for what amounted to human failure,” he said. “There’s been a systematic effort among several agencies to take advantage of people’s fear of eucalyptus to get funding to do what they want to do to the land.”

Eucalyptus tree on the University of California, Berkeley campus, 2007. (Photo: light7wave, Flickr)

Related:

  • East Bay Regional Park District Background on Wildfire risks – “Major increases in flammable vegetation, over the past 70 years, have significantly increased the wildfire risk. Steep hillsides have been converted from grazed grasslands to brush with hillside and ridge top homes, surrounded with flammable vegetation, often under or adjacent to groves of unmaintained pine or eucalyptus.

  • Death of a Million Trees – “The most frequently cited “evidence” of the flammability of eucalypts is the 1991 firestorm in the Oakland/Berkeley hills. The conventional wisdom is that eucalypts were the cause of that fire. The role the eucalypts played in the 1991 fire in the East Bay is greatly exaggerated.
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Category: Environment

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About the Author ()

Rachel Dornhelm got her start in radio at WHYY. After anthropology graduate school, Rachel lived in Uzbekistan working with youth near the drying Aral Sea. Rachel returned to radio full-time in 2001. Her work has appeared on WNYC, WBUR, Marketplace, NPR news magazines and KQED. Reach Rachel Dornhelm at rdornhelm@kqed.org.

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