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UC/FEMA East Bay fire control project generates huge reaction
There's a lot to learn about this issue. FEMA is still taking comments, but please educate yourself before you comment because there's a lot of misinformation going around about this complex affair.
The eucalyptus forests of the East Bay hills were planted starting in the late 1800s to be a source of lumber for construction, but the trees, native to Australia, did not produce a good enough quality of wood in their new home to be used, and were left unharvested. Devoid of their natural controls of their native environment, they spread rapidly, and are on the state list of invasive plants. Needing a lot of water, some died during droughts, and others froze to death during unusually severe winter weather. Then in 1991, they were a major cause of the devastating 1991 firestorm in the East Bay hills, which destroyed over 3000 buildings and killed 25 people and unknown numbers of animals.
After that the affected and threatened areas of Claremont canyon, whose ownership was by 4 different entities,
followed programs of cutting down eucalpti, removing the wood or chipping it for mulch, selective weeding and some replanting of native flora.
The work was innovative and rather technical, using the guidance of revegetation specialists.
The rationale behind it was that the eucalypti are very fire prone and not well adapted to climatic conditions here, as
was shown by their death from the occasional freeze and their stress from drought. They draw huge amounts of water from the ground, drying up other vegetation, drop thick layers of flammable leaves, contain flammable terpenes in every part, and have long hanging strips of dry, flammable bark. In the fire of 1991, they shot out embers before them causing trees ahead of the fire to explode with consuming fires, or landed in shake roofs causing houses to explode. Their great heights caused the embers to be cast far ahead of the fire. Some (most?) of the dead eucalyps had been removed, but the forest had resprouted tall, spindly, and crowded saplings which were more tinder for the fire.
Other conditions which fed the fire were Monterey pines which were likewise overgrown, invasive, and highly flammable. The forests were thick with undergrowth.
While wildfires caused by lightning were a part of the ecology of California, its flora was adapted to it, and its
people considered themselves stewards of the land, making clearings to benefit themselves and wildlife, and carrying out burns to remove excess understory from forests thereby avoiding huge conflagrations.
One native person, on seeing a modern California landscape, commented that it was “neglected”, making the point that landscapes need to be managed by people!
Why are houses still being built on steep slopes and fire prone hills? It seems new zoning laws are needed.
Meanwhile, we are facing a dry summer with a high fire danger. The residents of such neighborhoods started early
to alter the local vegetation to a more fire resistant state and felt the best plan was to remove the eucalypti and instead aim for grasslands, scrub, and oak parklands of native plants which had been the sustainable landscape before the European settlers and their accompanying practices had altered the flora.
Starting around 2008 UC, EBRPD, and the City of Oakland applied to FEMA for grants to carry out fire abatement in areas along the East Bay hills. FEMA wanted to cover this entire fire prone area, and asked the interested parties to submit environmental impact analyses for their consideration. They had been taking input from local environmentalists in developing sound plans which the participants could accept. Unfortunately it appears that the plans, and the public hearings they planned, were not well enough publicized. When the plans were discovered, the public did turn out at the East Bay hearing on Saturday May 18th, drew a huge crowd of local people, most of whom were responding to charges that a million (or 85,000) trees were to be clearcut and the areas drenched with herbicides and left barren.
The plans were attributed to UCB plans to build commercial housing in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons, FEMA’s support of big pesticide giants like Monsanto, dogmatic native plant ideologues who would sacrifice existing ecosystems to their frivolous hobby in disregard of carbon sink realities of global warming, which they believe call for planting more trees of whatever kind everywhere and never eliminating any.
There is a genuine concern that FEMA’s Last Word on the plan, due this summer after another comment period, will
not be in sync with the best environmental outcome, will implement a plan which causes further ecosystem degradation, will put poisonous herbicides into the environment, and will enrich herbicide manufacturers and UCB real estate interests.
This is a hard one.
However the vituperative exaggeration directed at those who believe a restoration of native fauna to be beneficial is destructive and unwarranted. People are genuinely trying to solve a serious problem of fire danger and don’t deserve the attacks. Falsehoods are being spread about the plans, about well established facts about fire safety, the effects of the invasion of eucalypti, the barren monoculture they do create, the well established protective nature of native plant communities and the diversity if flora and fauna they support, about the ability of native systems to regenerate.
Too much to cover here. Before you swallow the falsehoods, please investigate for yourself. You owe it to your community to educate yourself in the complex issues involved, before you advocate from a position of ignorance!
Please read some of the following:
Articles in Bay Nature magazine:
* Excellent explanation of the issue and featuring comments from 5 people with different roles in the Claremont Canyon area. Includes instructions on how to comment.
* Article showing volunteer restoration successfully carried out in Claremont Canyon by volunteers starting 12 years ago, before the current grant proposal.
* The Claremont Canyon Conservancy, formed 2001. A local effort to protect their hill neighborhood from fire, and their site has the best explanation of the fire issues and rationale for the selective tree cutting (no, not a clearcutting program!), the use of chip mulch, the use of native plants, and the successful management of fire after some of these
practices were adopted.
I would say a must-read.
* News article about Saturday’s public comment meeting, followed by links to articles on both sides.
* This article from SF Gate covers the issues, gives the plans’ detractors the first say, so read the whole article.
* A model of how to manage this area locally: (do a search for this)
A Cooperative project between the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, the East Bay Regional Park District, and Golden Hour Restoration Institute
* FEMA EIS for Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction
* Read FEMA’s proposal for yourself.
http://ebheis.cdmims.com/Documents.aspx - see Executive Summary