Wise words about fire hazards

The Hills Conservation Network has published a new petition addressed to the mayor and city council members of the City of Oakland:

“To Mayor Libby Schaaf and all members of the Oakland City Council:

We request you stand up for the community, the environment, the trees and all the animals who live in the urban forest. Clear-cutting pine, eucalyptus and acacia and then dousing the hills with a decade of TOXIC herbicides is a bad idea. Species neutral fire prevention, backed by good science that focuses on ground fuels is where FEMA money should go”

That petition is available HERE.

This is a very astute comment by a recent signer of the petition:

“I work with a recently retired fire chief and spoke at length with him about this tree cutting plan. He has decades of experience with urban, suburban and forest/wildland fires. He was clear that cutting the trees WILL INCREASE the fire hazard because ALL wildland fires START in dry grass/underbrush, not in trees. Fires spread to trees  ONLY when they are allowed to get out of control. This is not a new concept. That is why the underbrush is cut in forests.

I lived in Montclair during the firestorm. Those of us here then know the real reasons the fire got out of control: A) The original small GRASS fire was not fully put out or watched; B) many hoses could not be hooked up so there was NO water in a number of places; C) they fought it house to house rather than setting – as they did days later- a perimeter to stop it; D) there were NO evacuation orders; E) the streets are narrow and in many places the fire trucks could not get through because of the parked cars.

After the fire there were specific plans to widen the roads, allow parking on only one side of narrow roads, change the hydrant connections, limit the size of homes as well as many other preventative measures. The streets are the same and it appears other lessons from that fire have not been learned.

Ours is a FOREST environment. The solution to forest fires is NOT to clear cut the forest.

I also lived in Lake Tahoe. A forest fire started near our home. The fire department had a full perimeter set up within 15 minutes and fought the fire in from the perimeter to keep if from spreading. It was out in 30 minutes. THEY are TRAINED to fight these types of fires. The Oakland Fire Department was NOT. Hopefully they are now.

I also lived in Reno Nevada where there is only scrub brush and grass. I lived through the worst fires imaginable during those years. I have never seen such fast spreading, out-of-control fires as those created by dry grass and scrub brush. It was MUCH harder to put out, must faster moving and YES those fires burn many homes just as quickly.

The Eucalyptus in our hills keep the ground WET, YEAR ROUND, just feel under them, even now, in this drought because they collect and drip the moisture from the air. They also PREVENT the highly dry grass from growing. They are very dense and not fast burning, Pine are especially resistant to fire. All around our hills are mosses, ferns, molds and damp soils because of the Pine and Eucalyptus forests. This moisture is key to protecting our forest.

If these trees are cut down they cannot be put back when the reality of the error is recognized. If you truly wish to restore the area to its ‘natural’ state then either replant redwoods or perhaps flood with sea water to bring it back to ‘what it was.’

This planned tree cutting will live in history as one of the most devastating destructions of a unique, beautiful and rare environment. This is an area that hundreds of thousands of folks visit for its serenity, wildlife, and forest shade.

It is has also been the cherished home to many of us residents for decades; a home we choose in large part because of the trees.”

Million Trees and the San Francisco Forest Alliance also published a petition to the Sierra Club about their support for deforestation and poisoning of our urban forests in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Here is one of the comments that was posted by a signer of that petition:

Tyehimba Peyton from Lathrop, CA signed this petition on Aug 25, 2015.

“I am a retired Oakland Fire Department Fire Chief and believe that removing the trees does not reduce, but in fact increases fire danger to the Oakland hills.”

It is a fiction that native plants are less flammable than non-native plants.  All the fires raging in Western states this summer are occurring in native vegetation.  They start in dry grass, which ignites easily and they move rapidly through the dry grass.  When they reach shrubs, they generate more heat.  Trees are rarely involved unless it is a wind-driven fire.  Anyone with knowledge of fires in California and without a nativist agenda knows that the planned projects in the East Bay Hills will increase fire hazards, not decrease them.

Fire truck called to hose down steaming pile of wood chips, September 3, 2015
Fire truck called to hose down steaming pile of wood chips, September 4, 2015

Save the East Bay Hills recently reported on their Facebook page an incident, which demonstrates that creating huge piles of dead wood chips will also contribute to fire hazards.  The planned projects will chip the hundreds of thousands of trees they intend to destroy and spread them on the ground.  These huge piles of wood chips have the potential for spontaneous combustion as illustrated by this incident:

“Today on Skyline Blvd. in Oakland, we witnessed an incident that demonstrates just how much the plan to cut down 400,000 trees in the East Bay Hills and spread their chipped remains in thick carpets will imperil the welfare of hills residents by vastly increasing the risk of fire.

At noon, just down the street from Redwood Regional Park, Oakland Fire Chief Vegetation manager, Vince Crudele, and several firefighters were called to the scene after a neighbor reported that a large mulch pile from a pine tree that was recently cut down had begun steaming. Firefighters hosed down the mulch pile with water to cool it and explained to us that the steam was the result of heat from the composting debris. 

This, of course, begs the question: if the heat from just one tree composting (on a very cool day) is sufficient to warrant the intervention of the Oakland Fire Department, what is going to happen when thick piles of mulch from many thousands of trees and spanning thousands of acres begin to compost in direct sunlight and on hot days? Or, more to the point, how on earth is the current “fire abatement” plan a fire abatement plan?

In fact, it isn’t. It is, according to former Oakland firefighter and Chief of Fire Prevention for the Oakland Army base, ‘a land transformation disguised as a wildfire hazard mitigation plan.. [that] will endanger firefighters and the general public.’

Please sign our petitions to prevent this dangerous plan from being implemented.

6 thoughts on “Wise words about fire hazards”

  1. People who think mature forests are fire hazards ought to read the histories’ of two great fires in Minnesota: the Hinkley Fire and the Cloquet Fire.

  2. Indeed, there is much that is astute in the comment you described that way and ascribed to a recent signer of the petition.

    The statements that “ALL wildland fires START in dry grass/underbrush, not in trees. Fires spread to trees ONLY when they are allowed to get out of control” are, however, inaccurate They are inaccurate both in that they are hyperbolic and that they feed a myth that is part of the problem.

    Some wildland fires do start in trees when hit by lightening, and getting “out of control” is not the only circumstance in which wildfires spread to trees.

    Those statement do, though, point to important truths just beneath the hyperbole, and they bring up a very significant aspect of the complex equation vital to public and policymaker understanding:

    Instead of suppressing all wildfires, we should be inviting wildfires. Readers aghast at that thought are envisioning what are termed “crown fires” (the ones that burn through the tops of the trees) but crown fires are neither the only type of wildfires in forests nor the greatest percentage of wildfires in HEALTHY forests. Healthy forests are forests in which fires can and do burn in them without killing a high percentage (if even any) mature trees.

    We should WANT wildfires to burn in trees and kill them before they become “ladder” fuels (that serve as fuses carrying “ground” fire up into the larger trees and thus beginning “crown fire”.) It is each the most sound ecologically, fiscally, human safety, and property-protective wildland fire management policy.

    Wildland fire is an ESSENTIAL ecosystem process. The challenge before us is how to make ourselves and our environs more “fire-friendly” so that wildfires CAN burn to produce their many benefits. That challenge cannot be met with any one-size-fits-all prescription, as each ecosystem and each site has its specific individual and sets of factors to consider, but we MUST embrace the challenges and adapt each plan to do so as we learn from its successes and failures.

    Or, we could just keep trying the same things that for many decades looked like they were working but actually were building up pressure that is now explosive, and accept its ever-increasing results that we get adrenaline rushes from by calling them catastrophic.

    1. The URS Corporation is the source of the information regarding the potential for spontaneous combustion in the deep piles of wood chip mulch planned by the FEMA projects in the East Bay Hills:

      “Studies have shown that mulch layers actually can pose a fire risk depending upon the type of material, the depth of the mulch, and the climate at the mulch site. Studies at the Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute demonstrated that sparks from cigarettes or matches can lead to a subsurface smoldering fire in a variety of mulch materials 4 inches deep (Steward 2002). The recommended depth for landscape mulch is less than 4 inches (Appleton and French 1995) to avoid stifling growth of remaining trees and to avoid spontaneous combustion that can occur when decomposition of organic materials creates enough energy in a pile to ignite a fire. Fire Engineering Magazine (2008) reported that spontaneous combustion resulting in a catastrophic fire occurred in 10- to 20-foot piles. Although eucalyptus chips were not tested in these studies, Fire Engineering Magazine recommends that, to reduce the potential for fire in mulch, one should recognize that mulches high in oils ignite more easily and that mulch fires start more readily in hot climates where rain is scarce (and fuel moisture is low). Eucalyptus material is high in oils, and the East Bay Hills are subject to long annual periods that are hot and dry.”

      URS Corporation was the first environmental consultant hired to evaluate UC Berkeley’s plans for the Environmental Impact Statement. This was only one of their many criticisms of UC Berkeley’s plans. Other criticisms are described in detail here: https://milliontrees.me/2013/05/27/environmental-consultant-evaluates-uc-berkeleys-fema-project/

      The evaluation of UC Berkeley’s project was given to the creator of that project, Tom Klatt, in 2009. Despite this and other scathing criticism from knowledgeable consultants such as the US Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Klatt has refused to revise those plans to address these legitimate concerns. Mr. Klatt is a dangerous person and UC Berkeley is being irresponsible to permit him to ignore the considerable public record which informs us that his project will increase fire hazards as well as poison our public lands.

      Dano cannot deny the reality of the steaming pile of wood chip mulch that was hosed down by the Oakland Fire Department on September 4th. Obviously the neighbor who reported the steaming pile and the firemen that hosed it down believed it posed a fire hazard. It was not a particularly hot day on September 4th. We have just experienced several days of record-breaking heat and we expect more later this week. Spontaneous combustion is not baseless speculation. It is a reality.

      1. I corroborate the reality of wood chip piles erupting into flames without having been sparked. “Spontaneous combustion” is burning that is caused by chemical actions inside of something rather than by heat from the outside.

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