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Reducing fire hazards in the East Bay hills
Locals applaud campus efforts to remove flammable trees in Claremont Canyon

| 25 February 2004

 

clearing woods

After a campus tree-felling operation near Grizzly Peak Boulevard, emergency-planning manager Tom Klatt helps to position a harvested log near the road’s edge. Eucalyptus are a fire hazard when standing and “lousy for lumber” once felled, he says. But they’re quite effective as barriers to motorized bikes and to prevent stolen cars from being pushed down into the canyon. “They’re nice fat logs,” he says. “They’ll probably last 35 years.”
Photo courtesy of Tom Klatt

For East Bay residents, the Southern California fires of fall 2003 were a sobering heads-up about the perils we face each year. Here, too, fire is a danger where wildlands adjoin residential neighborhoods — particularly in the fall, when vegetation is dry and Diablo winds can gust down hill canyons with ferocious speed. Twice in the last century, in 1923 and 1991, such conditions have produced fires that wiped out East Bay neighborhoods in the course of hours.

Following the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991, which destroyed more than 3,000 dwellings and killed 25 people, public-safety authorities have preached the virtues of maintaining “defensible space” — an area free of flammable vegetation around each home. And they warn residents of the particular dangers posed by Monterey pine and eucalyptus, the latter a highly flammable Australian tree introduced in the mid-1800s by foresters who mistakenly thought it would provide lumber for construction.

To reduce fire hazards in the hills, the Berkeley campus is pursuing an ambitious long-term program to encourage native species on its 225 acres at the top of Claremont Canyon, below Grizzly Peak Blvd. on either side of Claremont Ave. The program began experimentally in 2001 on three acres, with more acres added each year and “a lot more in the pipeline,” says Tom Klatt, the campus’s manager of emergency planning and head of the fire-abatement effort.

Earlier this month, his office applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster-Resistant University grant. And it has four more applications for vegetation-management projects, totaling about $1.3 million, in the works.

Klatt’s goals are to remove all eucalyptus on university land south of Claremont Ave. by 2008 and to foster a complete conversion to a forest of native redwood, bay laurel, and oak by removing exotic competitors. UC’s 115 acres north of Claremont Ave. (half of which contain resprouted eucalyptus trees) are currently under study. “This slope is drier and nearer to known habitat of the endangered Alameda whipsnake,” Klatt notes, “so the approach for this parcel will need to be carefully crafted.”

The campus Fire Mitigation Committee — chaired by Frank Beall, professor of environmental science, policy, and management — is considering various management approaches, and expects to involve in the planning many constituencies, including the large landholders and cities that comprise the Hills Emergency Forum.

Phased approach
Fire-abatement management is not an exact science, so trial and error figures into campus efforts in the hills. “We do a small portion, see what we learned … then get feedback and improve it for the next phase,” says Klatt. Since 2001, the campus has taken down 3,000 eucalyptus on 30-plus acres near the intersection of Grizzly Peak and Fish Ranch Road.

Many of these are trees that resprouted, with a vengeance, following a freeze in 1971 that appeared to have killed them — but didn’t. The stumps remained, and where there had been one tree before the freeze, a cluster of six to eight sprouted in its place. “I liken them to a hydra,” says Klatt.

This time, to eradicate each eucalyptus tree for good, the campus is applying a herbicide, Garlan IV, to the stumps. For the trunks and branches, it is using an innovative forest-management technique called “lop and scatter.” The method involves chopping the eucalyptus wood into pieces and leaving them on the ground to provide habitat, circulate nutrients, and promote decomposition. The chunks are still in the forest, notes Klatt, but they’re much less dangerous than 120-foot-tall trees.

Locals take note
Local stakeholders, including regional agencies, residents’ organizations, and city officials, have praised campus fire-abatement efforts in the canyon under Klatt’s leadership.

Berkeley City Councilwoman Betty Olds, who represents the hills district, acknowledges that “none of us were as concerned about fire” prior to the 1991 disaster, but that all are deeply so today. She praises UC’s work to clear vegetation in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons. “We’re lucky to have Tom Klatt,” she says. “He certainly follows up.”

The Claremont Canyon Conservancy — a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce fire threat, eliminate invasive exotics, and promote recreational access to the canyon — last year signed a formal memorandum of understanding with the campus for shared stewardship of the area. Under the agreement, conservancy volunteers plant and tend designated native plants after the campus has downed invasive exotics. At one site, notes Klatt, the group planted 54 redwood trees and installed a watering system to help them get established.

Conservancy Vice President Bill McClung says that tree-felling south of Claremont Avenue has revealed a native hardwood and emerging redwood forest — “along with some magnificent new views across the canyon, the bay, and over to Mt. Tamalpais.” His organization is “honored” to be working with the university on the project, he says. “As the work progresses, we will all see taking shape a social and environmental value comparable to the Harvard Forest or the Forest at Duke.”

In one recent letter to the campus, library staffer David Kessler — a survivor of the ’91 firestorm and past president of the North Hills Phoenix Association — wrote that “while there remains much to do on UC land (and on other properties),” the campus’s current efforts and willingness to address the issue “offer greatly increased safety to inhabitants of the Berkeley and Oakland hills and the cities as a whole in a worst-case scenario.”

Kessler and his wife, Berkeley library staff member Nancy Mennel, live in lower Claremont Canyon. Though university vegetation-management efforts at the top of the canyon are not visible from their house, he says, “what they’re doing is intimately connected to the welfare of me and my neighbors. It’s connected in invisible ways that are extremely direct.”

Given the climate, topography, and vegetation of the hills, fires are inevitable, Kessler says. But he strongly believes that the campus’s fire-abatement program, if continued into the years ahead, “will save lives and property when fire again is loose in the East Bay hills.”