UC Regents sue FEMA over pulled fire prevention funding

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The UC Regents have sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for cutting millions in fire prevention funding previously allocated to the East Bay Hills.

In September 2016, FEMA canceled a “pre-disaster mitigation” grant for the Hills,which included UC Berkeley- and city of Oakland-owned land, but involved no city of Berkeley land. The grant, which would have been worth $3.5 million, was established under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

Funding, originally awarded in March 2015, covered the university’s portion of a region-wide project to reduce wildfire risk to human life and building structures. The project involved the thinning of non-native, flammable vegetation — including the abundant and controversial eucalyptus, among other trees.

Both the UC Office of the President and FEMA declined to comment on the pending litigation.

“Despite … years of research and inter-agency cooperation,” the lawsuit reads, “FEMA abruptly disregarded those conclusions and decided unilaterally to terminate this funding to resolve litigation filed by a third-party.”

The third-party litigation refers to a suit filed by Hills Conservation Network, or HCN, an organization dedicated to “stop the deforestation of the Berkeley and Oakland hills.” HCN sued FEMA last year in an effort to halt the tree-thinning project.

According to HCN’s website, “UC and the City of Oakland plan to use federal disaster mitigation funds … not because of a fire risk, but instead to clear the land for facilities expansion.” The site further alleges that the university has dismissed proposed “species neutral” strategies that would be “cheaper, would use far fewer herbicides, and would be far more effective in lessening fire risk because such strategies wouldn’t accomplish this hidden agenda.”

The regents’ suit alleges that FEMA’s decision to rescind the funding was illegal because it did not receive consent from the regents themselves, which is required by the Stafford Act. The Stafford Act gives authority to carry out federal disaster response activities — in particular those concerning FEMA and its programs.

The suit also states that FEMA did not complete a supplemental environmental review, disregarding the National Environmental Policy Act.

“We would like to see the fuel load in the hills reflect a more fire resistant native habitat,” said Berkeley Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief David Brannigan.

Though the land in question is not under BFD’s jurisdiction, according to Brannigan, if there was a fire in the hills, the city’s resources would immediately be called upon.

The suit points to 15 major wildfires that occurred in the East Bay Hills between 1923-92 — these wildfires burned about 9,000 acres, destroyed about 4,000 homes and killed 26 people.

According to the suit, “without the Project, the East Bay Hills and its surrounding communities continue to be vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.”

Audrey McNamara is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @McNamaraAud.

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  • Madeline Hovland

    When the shade provided by the non-native trees is gone, the areas where the trees used to be will fill in with weeds, foxtail grass, chaparral shrubs, poison oak and poison hemlock (among other highly flammable undesirables). All of that vegetation will burn more quickly and intensely than non-native trees such as eucalyptus with thick trunks that hardly burn at all unless ladder fuels cause the fire to move up into the leaves. It is incredible to me to hear anyone, especially a fire department professional claim that native habitat is more fire resistant than non-native. That statement is totally untrue. During the 1991 fire I saw coast live oaks and redwoods burn down to the ground along with ceanothus and many “natives.” Whether a plant or tree species is more fire resistant than another depends on its characteristics, not on whether some people consider it an “alien” non-native. How can UC consider itself a proponent of efforts to reduce global warming when the regents are willing to remove hundreds of thousands of tall trees that take in carbon dioxide and store the carbon in their trunks, roots and branches?

  • Fred Werner

    HCN wasn’t the only ones opposing UC’s plans. The neighbors most affected were (and stil are) divided, and many individuals who live in the immediate area urged FEMA to cancel the funding for this plan that was ostensibly supposed to prevent the inevitable fire that threatens their own homes. If UC’s primary interest in this project is protecting our homes and our neighborhood, they should go back to the drawing board, and prepare a plan that actually is thinning (not clearing) and does not involve toxic herbicide applications.