A Berkeley Hills resident engages in defensible space activity by hiring a team to cut down trees on their property. The city of Berkeley now plans to inspect around 8,600 properties for defensible space compliance annually in hillside fire zones, up from about 1,200 inspected in 2021. To prevent wildfire spread, city crews are also cutting down and trimming trees on public property that pose the greatest risk. Credit: Clara Mokri

In an effort to prevent the spread of wildfire, the city of Berkeley has removed almost 300 trees from high-risk fire zones over the past three years. Another roughly 40 trees have been trimmed or cut back.

Most of the trees are blue gum eucalyptus and Monterey pine, according to Scott Ferris, Berkeley parks director. Arborists help decide which trees pose the greatest fire risks.

The work is occurring in city parks, paths and street right-of-ways in Berkeley’s two hillside fire zones, which have the highest wildfire risk. This area spans more than 8,000 residential properties.  

“Berkeley has an inventory of every tree on city property. They have all been evaluated for health and risk,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose district includes some of the highest-risk fire areas. The city’s tree work, she said, “is essential to creating fuel breaks and safer conditions in the event of wildfire.”

Tree work has occurred in Remillard, Glendale-La Loma, John Hinkel, Codornices and Cragmont parks, as well as along Wildcat Canyon Road, Cragmont Avenue and Shasta Road, Ferris said. Trees have also been removed or cut back along several of the city’s hillside paths.

Chopped trees in Cragmont Rock Park on April 25. A recent city project included the removal of 28 Eucalyptus, six plums, four dead redwoods, three dying Canary Island pines, one pittosporum and one Catalina cherry (which was growing over an adjacent residence). Courtesy: City of Berkeley

The goal, Ferris said, is fuel reduction to “improve defensible space, egress along streets and paths, and to reduce fuel ladders.” 

Fuel ladders are low-growing brush, grass, branches or small trees under mature trees. Flames easily climb them, spreading fire.

“We want to prevent the vertical spread of fire from the more combustible ground fuels from extending up into the tree,” said Chris Pinto, a Berkeley assistant fire chief working with wildfire prevention.

The city’s wildfire tree program is not related to the sudden die-off affecting thousands of trees in the East Bay Regional Park District, Ferris said. The city hasn’t seen a sudden die-off on its lands, he said. 

“With all vegetation, combustibility is a main concern,” Pinto said. “Well-hydrated, healthy and well-maintained trees can be quite fire-safe. We prefer to fight fire before it occurs through good vegetation management.” 

Tree management — pruning, felling, planting — is a routine responsibility of the city parks department on all city-owned land. 

But the focus on wildfire prevention intensified a couple of years ago, helped by funding from Measure FF, an $8.5-million-per-year emergency services parcel tax passed by voters in 2020, which prioritizes wildland fire response. Concern about wildfire is heightening in Berkeley, along with the rest of the state, fueled by severe drought and an increasing frequency of devastating fires throughout the west — linked by many experts to climate change.

Private property owners shoulder fire risk

Clearing vegetation on public land is only one piece of Berkeley’s efforts to reduce wildfire risk. Many trees, flammable and less so, healthy and less so, well-maintained and less so, grow on private land, in people’s yards. Along with grasses, brush and bushes — tended and wild.

Learn more about protecting your property from wildfire

Enter the city’s defensible space requirements, which also apply to Berkeley’s high-risk hillside fire zones, 2 and 3. (These zones coincide with fire risk zoning used by CalFire, which oversees state wildfire regulations. Many jurisdictions use only CalFire’s zoning; the city designated its own wildfire severity zones years ago, which can get confusing, but the two maps agree on Berkeley’s severity areas.)

Residents in hillside fire zones are required by state law to create defensible space around their homes, or mow, trim and cut back their vegetation to slow the spread of fire. This includes trimming trees 8 feet up from the ground — removing the ladders. 

Defensible space — an increasingly familiar term in wildfire prevention — refers to the ability of firefighters to defend a house or structure. Thinning vegetation and minimizing or removing flammable growth or materials makes it easier and safer for fire crews to fight fire and access buildings.

“Crews need ‘defensible space’ around the structures so they can get in and protect homes,” Pinto said.

The basics of defensible space in Berkeley. Credit: Berkeley Fire

The city has some discretion when it comes to requiring the removal of dead trees or other fire hazards on private property, he said. 

“Our inspectors look at each tree individually,” Pinto said. “If a tree is properly located and maintained, regardless of species, we cannot ask for removal. We would obviously require removal of a dead tree, especially if it is within 100 feet of the home.”

City inspections are up 7-fold this year

The city’s defensible space compliance inspections are underway, Pinto said, and have expanded since last year, as staffing increases.

The city now plans to inspect around 8,600 properties annually in fire zones 2 and 3, up from about 1,200 in 2021. 

The program will operate year-round. The first inspections started May 1 and so far roughly 6,600 properties have been inspected. Property owners have 30 days to comply.

This work falls under Berkeley Fire Department’s new Wildland Urban Interface Division, formally established this month and funded by Measure FF.  Under the unit, the defensible space inspection program is poised to grow.

The unit includes a team of part-time defensible space inspectors, 13 so far. Longtime Berkeley firefighter Dan Green was recently named as the division’s first chief and will start next month.

The city is also considering removing trees on private property, in agreement with owners. The City Council in April expressed support for this, but it’s still in the studying stage. 

There’s currently no financial assistance for private property owners struggling to fund the work.

The fire department strives to collaborate with residents to bring compliance, Pinto said. “We work with owners and are willing to be flexible with the time frame for compliance when warranted.”

But if a property isn’t compliant after 30 days, a second violation notice will be issued with 14 days to comply, with a fee charged for the reinspection. 

About 70% of properties pass initial inspection, Pinto said. After the two-week reinspection, compliance is growing to 90%. 

“Ultimately, we can write a citation or secure an abatement warrant. However, we try to resolve all violations through public education and persistence. We have found most property owners and residents appreciate the program and are compliant.”

Defensible space requirements are poised to get stricter in the future, with new state laws in the pipeline. This includes the enforcement in 2023 of a new defensive space ember-resistant zone, from the base of buildings out to 5 feet. CalFire is expected to release detailed requirements in the next few months. 

The three causes of building loss during wildfires. Credit: University of California Cooperative Extension

One of the biggest obstacles to defensible space is cost. Tree removal and brush clearance are expensive, driven by a high demand for the work. It can also be dangerous, requiring special equipment and training. For some property owners, the high price of tree work is an obstacle to clearing flammable conditions. 

“This can be an overwhelming and expensive process. Start chipping away at it now,” said David Sprague, a Berkeley Fire assistant chief. 

The city does offer a fuel chipper and debris removal program in the hills, specifically to help with vegetation management in high-fire-hazard areas. See the 2022 brochure on the program, which includes pickup sites, on the city website.

Wengraf said she hopes the city’s tree program shows residents that Berkeley practices what it preaches. 

“The city of Berkeley is a large landowner with beautiful parks scattered throughout the hills in the high fire areas. I think it’s very important for the city to set an example for our community,” she said. 

Key wildfire response resources

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...