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.