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Imperiled by wildfires, Berkeley further threatened by eucalyptus trees

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ANITA LIU | STAFF

Discussion continues surrounding the city of Berkeley's fire risk, notably including eucalyptus trees in the region, which have characteristics that may be particularly dangerous in a fire.

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JULY 24, 2022

City Councilmember Susan Wengraf supported Measure FF for one simple, yet deeply contentious, reason.

“Because Berkeley is in a very vulnerable situation in terms of wildfire,” she said.

A familiar sight for those who frolic through nature, Berkeley is sprouting with eucalyptus trees. Approximately 1,250 of these plants spread their roots in the north, not including the trees growing in the UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, campuses, according to a report by the Hillside Fire Safety Group, or HFSG.

Formed by the Hillside Association of Berkeley, or HAB, to address fire risk, HFSG is composed of 15 leaders, including a retired member of the U.S. Department of Forestry.

“My journey began by daily hikes and runs through the hills and trails in Tilden Park and up all the neighborhoods,” said Henry DeNero, president of HAB and HFSG. “I started noticing the eucalyptus trees and then I started thinking about where they were and eventually counted them all over and over again, on hundreds of walks.”

While eucalyptus trees may appear harmless behind the lenses of people’s phones as they pause to take pictures, the evergreen giants are a uniquely dangerous species from a fire risk perspective, according to the report.

With oil-infused bark and leaves, the plant is highly flammable and produces excessive amounts of debris that decompose slowly, becoming fuel for ignitions, the report reads. Its loose, exfoliating bark further allows ground fires to climb up the tree.

If eucalyptus canopies were to erupt in a firestorm, torches — bits and pieces of burning tree — could be sent a mile into the wind, potentially landing in a neighbor’s backyard. DeNero said he’s met two people who watched eucalyptus trees explode before their eyes in the 1991 Oakland tunnel fire.

“The torches literally rain down in front of the fire, carried in the wind into the city,” DeNero said. “It’s almost like a science fiction nightmare.”

About 400 of the trees are in an area HFSG has coined “The Line of Fire,” which is a series of eucalyptus groves growing downhill from east to west starting at Grizzly Peak Boulevard.

All it could take, DeNero warned, is for someone to flip a cigarette out of their car to incite a firestorm.

“The trees are in effect the fuse that could light the city and once the city is on fire, you can’t stop it,” DeNero said.

The fire risk posed by eucalyptus trees can be assuaged by cleaning the debris under the plants until, ultimately, the trees can be removed and replaced with live oaks, DeNero said. With an estimated $2,000-3,000 per tree removal and an additional several hundred thousand dollars for cleanup, the entire process would cost $2-3 million, according to the report.

Rallying dozens of community members and hundreds of campus students as volunteers, HFSG has helped remove more than 50 tons of eucalyptus debris, the report reads. Berkeley Lab has raised $3 million from Cal Fire, planning to remove up to 1,500 eucalyptus trees from its campus and revegetate with live oaks.

The city of Berkeley’s parks and recreation department, according to the report, is working to remove eucalyptus trees from its various parks and other jurisdictions that pose “particularly acute hazards.”

As eucalyptus trees across the city are concentrated in about 100 private properties — mostly houses — HFSG recommends using funds from Measure FF to remove fuel as swiftly as possible without charging homeowners, according to DeNero.

While nothing in Measure FF prohibits the city from using public funds to mitigate fire risk on private land, DeNero alleged that there is resistance among some, including members of the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, or DFSC.

Months ago, DFSC passed a recommendation to the city council that would mandate removal of hazardous fuel including eucalyptus debris at homeowners’ expense, according to the report. However, before it can be submitted to the council for consideration, it must be reviewed by Berkeley Fire Department, or BFD, which has yet to happen, the report alleged.

BFD has not responded to this allegation as of press time.

In a letter to the city council dated June 26, DFSC member Nancy Rader claimed that the commission has not been able to fulfill its duties of overseeing Measure FF fund expenditures because BFD has not provided enough budgetary information.

“In short, the oversight process for Measure FF funds is largely dysfunctional,” Rader wrote.

Nonetheless, behind all the smoke and mirrors, there has been change mushrooming from Berkeley’s soil.

Receiving more than $8 million from its second allocation of Measure FF funds, BFD has hired retired firefighters to help conduct inspections on properties in very high fire hazard zones, Wengraf said. It also signed a contract with an outdoor notification system, currently in the installation phase.

The system will, one day, act as a harbinger for earthquakes, wildfires and other environmental disasters Californians have grown accustomed to.

Eventually, Wengraf hopes to create a program to help low income property owners overcome the financial hurdle of fire mitigation efforts, such as tree removal. For now, she is working with neighboring jurisdictions to create some semblance of collective action, aiming to coordinate on fundraising, standards of vegetation management and public education.

“We have a huge challenge and we don’t have the resources to deal with it,” Wengraf said. “The regional approach is really important because fire doesn’t know boundaries … this is one way that we can support the efforts to meet the challenge of the threat.”

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.
LAST UPDATED

JULY 24, 2022


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