The Sierra Club has said many silly things in defense of its lawsuit demanding 100% destruction of all non-native trees on 2,000 acres of public land in the East Bay Hills, and Million Trees has responded to many of them (1). Now Sierra Club has provided a new batch of ridiculous statements in its “pre-buttal” to the letter from a Chapter member to fellow Chapter members.
The winner of the intense competition for silliest statement
Sierra Club’s silliest statement: “Eucalyptus trees are called “gasoline trees” in Australia for their tendency to explode in fireballs at very high temperatures.[ii]” (2)
You would not hear such a statement in Australia about ANY tree (eucalyptus or otherwise) because Australians do not use the word “gasoline.” What Americans call “gasoline,” is called “petrol” in Australia (and Britain, New Zealand, etc.). (3)
So, the next question is, do Australians call eucalyptus trees “petrol trees?” The answer is, “NO, they do NOT call eucalyptus trees “petrol trees.” A Google search for “petrol tree” directs the searcher to an article about a tree that is being grown in Australia as a source of diesel fuel. The Brazilian tree Copaifera langsdorfii produces “natural diesel.” Australian farmers have planted 20,000 of these trees with the expectation that “in 15 or so years they’ll have their very own oil mine growing on their farmland.” (4)
The Sierra Club provides a citation for its statement about “gasoline trees.” The citation is a paper by Carol Rice, the primary author of the East Bay Regional Park District’s “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan.” So, we might expect her to claim that eucalyptus is very flammable and she does. However, she does not call them “gasoline trees” (nor does she claim that Australians do) nor does she claim that eucalyptus “explodes in fireballs.”
Wildfires in Mediterranean climates
The Sierra Club also provides a brief film clip of a wildfire in Australia. The film clip is narrated by an American who claims that “firemen call eucalyptus gasoline trees.” We hear Australians describing the fire, but they don’t say anything about “gasoline trees.”
Let’s compare that film clip in Australia with wildfires here in California. Our most recent local wildfire was in September 2015, in Lake County about 100 miles north of San Francisco. The Lake County fire destroyed about 1,200 buildings, killed 4 people, and burned over 76,000 acres. HERE is a film clip of that fire, taken from the dashboard camera of a county sheriff driving through the fire.
As we would expect, the Lake County fire looks very much like the fire in Australia because that’s what wildfires look like. Most start in dry grass and move quickly through the fine fuel. If it is a wind-driven fire, it will move into tree canopies and it will jump over roads. The fire in Lake County burned predominantly native vegetation. You will not see any eucalyptus trees burning in the film clip of the fire.
Wildfire behavior in California and southern portions of Australia are similar because their climates are similar. They share a Mediterranean climate in which winter rains produce copious herbaceous vegetation that dries out during the long, dry summer months. The green grass of winter becomes the fine fuel of summer. It ignites easily and if conditions are right (high winds and temperatures and low humidity) quickly becomes a wildfire in which everything burns. The native vegetation that survives these conditions must be adapted to periodic fire. Therefore, native vegetation in California and in Australia are both adapted to periodic fire. Destroying our non-native vegetation will not reduce fire hazards because native vegetation is equally flammable.
Many native trees are as flammable as eucalyptus trees. The leaves of native bay laurel trees contain twice as much oil as eucalyptus leaves. A cord of native oak wood contains more BTUs (measure of heat energy) than a cord of eucalyptus wood. Native redwoods are taller than eucalyptus and are therefore as likely to cast embers over long distances. There is as much fine fuel in the oak-bay woodland as there is in the eucalyptus forest.
What is a “gasoline tree?” It is a rhetorical device.
A Google search for “gasoline tree” turns up a mixed bag of American nativists using that term to describe eucalyptus, and sites about tree species being grown for biofuel as a substitute for gasoline.
Calling eucalyptus trees “gasoline trees” is a rhetorical device. A native plant advocate probably made it up, then it was shared in their closed community until it became a “fact” in their minds. It is a means of generating fear. It is a tool used by native plant advocates to support their demand to destroy all non-native trees in California. Name-calling does not alter the fact that if the trees are removed, the landscape will be much more flammable. They will be replaced by grasses and shrubs that will be easily-ignited fine fuels and result in fast-moving fires.
This is the second of a series of articles, debunking the latest batch of inaccurate statements made by the Sierra Club in its “pre-buttal” to the letter from a Club member to other Club members. Stay tuned!
(3) Australian dictionary: http://www15.uta.fi/FAST/US1/REF/aust-eng.html