Officials urge removal of flammable trees near campus

Hopi Hernandez/Staff

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Twelve elected officials urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency to release funds for a proposal to remove trees that pose a fire hazard from Claremont Canyon, a regional preserve that runs through the Berkeley and Oakland hills, in a letter released Tuesday.

Officials turned to FEMA, a federal agency that helps local and state governments mitigate disasters, to fund the proposal, which was submitted in 2005. If not approved, the endeavor would require funding from local taxpayers. FEMA will release a final plan of action addressing the issue this fall, according to Jon Kaufman, a board director of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy.

The area in which the trees are located mainly consists of public land, with sections of the upper canyon managed by and belonging to UC Berkeley. Areas also extend into parts of the Clark Kerr Campus. The proposal would remove trees from 998.3 acres of the preserve, approximately 99 acres of which fall within campus property.

The non-native trees — mainly eucalyptus — have leaves containing an oil that releases a flammable gas. As a result, they can be ignited at lower temperatures in contrast to other trees, making them a fire hazard. The Bay Area’s fire season is in the fall, when temperatures are warm and dry, and wind speeds are high.

A 1991 wildfire in the preserve caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damages, according to the California Office of Emergency Services.

The city of Oakland, UC Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Park District jointly applied for the grant. Officials who signed the letter included state Senator Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Berkeley City Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin, Laurie Capitelli, Susan Wengraf and Gordon Wozniak.

Last year, FEMA released a draft Environmental Impact Statement in response to the proposal that outlines a grant to thin, but not completely remove, the trees.

“There was a lot of controversy a year or two ago over what sort of approach should be taken,” Arreguin said. “There were certain environmental activists that think that pruning would be a better method.”

According to Arreguin, other opponents of the proposal said the use of herbicides on tree stumps to prevent regrowth would cause an adverse environmental impact in the area.

“Simply thinning the trees will block the sunlight, consume the limited amount of groundwater and keep the less flammable native species from regenerating,” the officials said in the letter. “Thinning will enable (winds) to blow through the eucalyptus thus enhancing the fire danger.”

The park district, UC Berkeley and the city of Oakland would oversee the removal.

The removal would take up to 40 weeks over the course of about three years. After initial tree cutting, maintenance would continue for up to 10 years.

Contact Adrienne Shih at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @adrienneshih.

A previous version of this article stated that the East Bay Municipal Utility District jointly applied for the grant. In fact, it was the the East Bay Regional Park District who applied for the grant.