Eucalyptus trees on university land in the Berkeley hills. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Eucalyptus trees on university land in the Berkeley hills. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to remove trees in the Berkeley/Oakland hills for fire management have been pulled after a successful suit by a community group to stop the plan.

FEMA withdrew $3.5 million in funding to UC Berkeley and the City of Oakland as part of a settlement agreement between the agency and the Hills Conservation Network (HCN). FEMA funds for fire mitigation by East Bay Regional Park District are not affected by the settlement.

“The folks who were intending to deforest large swaths of the Oakland/Berkeley hills are not going to be able to get FEMA money to do that,” said Dan Grassetti, president of HCN. “What we would like to see is for species-neutral vegetation management to happen throughout the area. The agencies should focus on eliminating the actual threat we face.”

Fire mitigation plans in the hills have been intensely debated since the devastating 1991 fire that killed 25 people and destroyed 2,843 single-family homes and 437 apartment and condominium units.

In the long-running dispute over the FEMA grant, HCN had argued that plans to remove thousands of eucalypti, Monterey pines and acacia trees would not reduce fire risk. The better approach, according to HCN, was to focus on vegetation-free zones near roadways and structures and brush clearing. That is the approach of the EBRP, he said. 

When then-UC Berkeley campus environmental manager Tom Klatt spoke to Berkeleyside in 2013, he argued that eucalypti presented a particular risk.

“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,” said Klatt, a member of the UC Fire Mitigation Committee. “Their low branches serve as fuel ladders up to their high crowns, and their volatile oils burn hot and fast.”

Other community groups have opposed HCN throughout the dispute.

“It’s just outrageous,” said Jon Kaufman, vice president of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, about the settlement. “They sold the residents and the university and the city of Oakland down the tubes. The next fire will come along and kill another 25 people.

“It’s just a travesty that FEMA have allowed a small group of people to jeopardize hundreds of families,” Kaufman said.

HCN remains embroiled in a second suit with UC Berkeley over using the 2020 Long Range Facilites Development Plan as evidence of compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The university’s fire hazard reduction plan is detailed on its website.

“There’s always the possibility that UC will use their own money,” Grassetti said. “We expect to file for either a restraining order or an injunction.”

In Berkeley, protesters get naked to try to save trees (07.18.15)
Hills group sues FEMA over plan to cut down trees (03.23.15)
UC Berkeley expert talks about hillside tree removal plan (06.11.13)
UC Berkeley seeks funds to cut down 22,000 non-native trees

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...