UC Berkeley project removes Claremont Canyon trees for evacuation route

Photo of Berkeley Hills
Isabella Ko/File
UC Berkeley's Claremont Canyon Evacuation Support Project removed eucalyptus trees lining Claremont Avenue in an effort to maintain fire evacuation routes for city residents.

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In a project spearheaded by UC Berkeley, eucalyptus trees lining Claremont Avenue have been removed in an effort to maintain fire evacuation routes for city residents.

The project, titled the Claremont Canyon Evacuation Support Project, started operations in November 2020, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. By January, trees within 100 feet of the pavement edge were removed by campus.

“This project is part of ongoing fire management plan implementation activities in the Hill Campus carried out by Facilities Services to ensure adequate emergency access and improve life safety for the public and campus affiliates,” the project memorandum states.

UC Berkeley Hill Campus is located to the east of campus and comprises 800 acres, according to the memorandum. Approximately 200 of these acres are located within Claremont Canyon, where the project is being conducted.

The removal of these trees will provide a safer fire evacuation route for those on campus, said campus forestry specialist and co-director of Berkeley Forests Bill Stewart.

Stewart added that he lived in student housing — the now-demolished Smyth Fernwald complex — during a firestorm in 1991. If the fire had caught onto the block of eucalyptus trees nearby, the area would have been severely burned, he said.

“It just so happened the wind took a 180-degree turn and it burned Oakland instead. We were a wind shift away from losing a large part of the campus,” Stewart said.

Eucalyptus trees are highly flammable and pose a great fire risk in dry and windy conditions, according to Stewart. He compared these conditions to the fires in Australia, where hot trees have fallen and blocked roads.

Claremont Canyon’s eucalyptus trees were originally planted some time between the 1920s and 1930s for a variety of beautification projects, according to Stewart. After a frost in the 1970s, many of these trees resprouted and gained smaller shoots and trees, posing a greater fire threat.

“They’re not natural, so it actually interferes with the native habitats, including various snakes and small animals,” Stewart said. “It’s better to have live oaks and buckeyes. What we’re doing is taking out the exotic eucalyptus to basically let the natural forest recover those areas.”

These trees are shorter and pose less of a fire threat compared to eucalyptus trees, he added.

A biologist was on-site for the entirety of the project, and efforts were made to protect animals who lived in the area, according to Gilmore.

“This project took precautions to protect the environment, including protecting woodrat nests, avoiding riparian areas, monitoring for bird nests, and limiting heavy equipment to roadbeds to minimize impacts to soil,” Gilmore said in an email.

Efforts to remove eucalyptus trees have been successful in other areas of the Claremont Canyon before, according to Stewart. The native trees grew back healthier and bigger. Residents can expect to see “quite a different forest” in a few years, Stewart said.

Contact Kelly Suth at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @kellyannesuth.