Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will soon remove 1,500 eucalyptus trees from its campus with a $2.9 million CalFire grant, revegetating them with Live Oak. UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley should follow suit, essentially eliminating the risk of a catastrophic firestorm that could kill hundreds of people and destroy much of the city.
Any species of tree will burn under extreme conditions. Yet, science and experience have shown that the blue gum eucalyptus is many times the fire hazard of other species. Its oil-impregnated bark and leaves are highly flammable. It produces up to 10 times the debris of Live Oak. It has the unique ability to burn up the trunk into the canopy. And in a firestorm, the canopy literally explodes, sending flaming pieces of the tree that foresters call “torches” into the wind. Our organization, the Hillside Fire Safety Group, has documented much of the science and experience about blue gum and its role in wildfires. But we don’t need to be scientists or arborists to understand this risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency documented the eucalyptus’ role in the 1991 Tunnel Fire that killed 25 people and destroyed over 3,000 homes. That fire would have been much worse if the wind had not shifted or our valiant firefighters had not taken a stand at the Claremont Hotel (1).
There are just over 1,000 eucalyptus trees in northeast Berkeley, most of which are in just 10 groves. We know; we counted them. Two hundred are evenly divided between city property and Zaytuna College. The city parks department and Zaytuna are already planning to remove theirs. The remaining 800 are on 125 private residential properties. There are another 550 in six groves on UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab property along their northern boundaries, a group of groves we call “The Line of Fire.” A firestorm in the canopy during Diablo winds in any of these groves would send hundreds of tons of flaming torches into the wind, igniting untold numbers of homes and buildings. Once ignited, the homes would burn block-to-block, a mile wide and possibly to the bay. Such a fire would most heavily impact middle- and lower-income groups and turn our housing crisis into a housing catastrophe. This is not just a problem for those living in the hills. It is a problem for all of us.
Our group has removed 50 tons of eucalyptus debris with the help of Berkeley Lab and 300 UC Berkeley student volunteers. Another 250 to 500 tons remain on the ground. With Berkeley Lab, the parks department and Zaytuna College planning to remove their trees, it is imperative that the university and city remove the eucalyptus in their jurisdictions, replacing them with Live Oak or other low fire-risk species as needed. We have asked the city and the university to do this. The city can use Measure FF funds to remove this public hazard on private property. It receives $8.5 million a year from Measure FF tax revenue indefinitely. Forcing homeowners to bear the cost would be unfair and cause additional delays. With less than half of one year’s receipts, the city can essentially eliminate our greatest fire risk. For a precedent, look across the bay. Marin County uses taxpayer money to remove hazardous vegetation from most of the county, mostly on private property. Their leaders acted decisively and are years ahead of Berkeley. Our city and university leaders should follow this example. We believe several agree. But the time for action is now, before it’s too late.
- Sullivan, Margaret. 1997. Firestorm! The Story of the 1991 East Bay Fire in Berkeley. Published by the city of Berkeley, California. Refer to pages 74-76, 99.
Henry DeNero is president of the Hillside Association of Berkeley and its Hillside Fire Safety Group, a nonprofit community organization.