“The Next Major Fire in the East Bay Hills”

We are re-publishing an excerpt of Dave Maloney’s report, “The Next Major Fire in the East Bay Hills” that was written and published by Save the East Bay Hills.  Thanks to Save the East Bay Hills for making this important report available to the readers of Million Trees.  If you haven’t visited the website of Save the East Bay Hills, we recommend that you do.  Its strong suit is the “Take Action” page, where you will find many specific suggestions for what you can do to help us prevent the destruction of our urban forest.

Dave Maloney is the former Chief of Fire Prevention for the U.S. Army at the Oakland Army Base. He is a retired firefighter from the Oakland Fire Department. He holds lifetime certification from the California State Fire Marshal’s Office as a Fire Investigator, and lifetime certification from the U.S. Dept. of Defense as a Fire Inspector. He was a member of the 1991-92 Emergency Preparedness and Community Restoration Task Force (the Oakland-Berkeley Mayors’ Firestorm Task Force) which investigated the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. He is currently a wildland fire prevention consultant.

The plan to deforest thousands of acres of East Bay public lands:

  • ​“ignores the U.S. Forest Service analysis dated September 27, 2013, which recommends against removing Eucalyptus trees;”
  • “violates the recommendations made by the 1991/1992 Task Force on Emergency Preparedness and Community Restoration, commonly known as the Oakland/Berkeley Mayors’ Fire Storm Task Force;”
  • “has no basis in fire science;”
  • “violates fundamental principles of Wildland Fire Prevention;”
  • “is ideologically motivated;” and,
  • “creates the conditions for a perfect firestorm.”

Specifically, Maloney states that, “The EBRPD, UC Berkeley (UCB), and the City of Oakland (Oakland) deforestation plan will create an enormous belt of grass and chaparral that will stretch from Richmond to Castro Valley to the eastern edge of Contra Costa County. This grassland belt will be many times more flammable than wooded terrain.” In fact, “the speed of grass fires can be at least twice that of fires involving trees, especially if there are only a few trees, or none, to act as windbreaks.”

Why? “All trees perform three vital functions in preventing or slowing the spread of grass and chaparral fires: they collect, with their leaves, moisture from the night air and drip it on the natural vegetation beneath them; the tops (canopies) of the trees create shade so this moisture is not evaporated by the sun by mid day; [and] they act as windbreaks which slow the velocity of the wind that pushes grass and chaparral fires.” As a result, “Removing trees of any species and wanting grasses and chaparral to replace them greatly increases the chance of a catastrophic, unstoppable fire.”

Chief Maloney further notes, “that any claims by proponents of deforestation that this will reduce the risk of fire “typified opinionated misinformation being spread by those with quotable positions.” In fact, Maloney argues that proponents know they are not being truthful, but are intentionally “exploiting the public’s fear of wildfire and misrepresenting fire hazard mitigation as a strategy to achieve their goals” which has nothing to do with fire and everything to do with wanting to return the hills to the largely treeless appearance they had during the pre-Colombian period.

For example, he states that their “claim that Eucalyptus trees are more flammable than other trees — and more flammable than grasses — is untrue and now dangerously misleading.” “One example of their true intentions is revealed by their refusal to tell the public that the California Bay Laurel tree, which they consider ‘native’ to the Bay Area has more volatile oil than any Eucalyptus tree. For years we’ve been hearing that the volatile oils of the Eucalyptus trees make them a supreme fire hazard. Yet the Bay Laurel contains 7.6% volatile oils of the samples tested, according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (1974). The amount of volatile oils in Eucalyptus trees range from 1 to 7% of the samples tested. But no Bay Laurel trees are to be cut down — nor ever mentioned.”

Even if this were not true, he notes that “essential/volatile oils of any tree [are] irrelevant to the flammability of a tree…” for two primary reasons. First, “Every species of tree in the East Bay hills is at least 30% water. This moisture is far greater than the amount of essential/volatile oil in any tree. It overwhelms by far any chance the essential/volatile oil has to set the tree on fire.” Second, “the volatile/essential oil in any tree cannot sustain heat long enough to ignite the highly dense wood of the tree.”

That is why “only 1% of all wildland fires start in trees. The other 99% start in grasses, bushes and shrubs. (The Oakland Hills fire of 1991 started in grass.) And only 8% of all wildland fires catch trees on fire. This means that 91% of all wildland fires do not involve trees at all but are restricted to grasses, bushes and shrubs. If we decrease the amount of trees in the hills and replace them with grasses we will have dramatically increased the chances of a wildland fire occurring.”

Instead of clear cutting trees, what should be done to reduce fire risk?

Maloney notes that the “Task Force on Emergency Preparedness and Community Restoration, commonly known as the 1991 Oakland/Berkeley Mayors’ Fire Storm Task Force,” of which he was a member, investigated “the causes of the ’91 fire and mak[d]e recommendations to prevent its recurrence. The committee spent hundreds of hours analyzing data and examining the burned areas.” Its February, 1992 report noted that “the most important factor in reducing fire danger from vegetation is not removing specific species but regular ongoing maintenance” such as “regular brush removal.” Not surprisingly, the “recommendations have been ignored by U.C. Berkeley, the City of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District.”

“Ignorance and influence are the parents of disaster,” he writes. “The Sierra club, the California Native Plant Society, Claremont Canyon Conservancy and others are very influential organizations. They are misusing their influence by attempting to lead the public into supporting the destruction of our East Bay forests and the creation of grassy, fire prone East Bay hills. And they are being very disrespectful to the entity of fire and the laws of physics which tell us how that entity behaves.” Instead, they are exploiting the 1991 tragedy in a manner that “imperils the public” and “endangers the firefighters who will be called to fight the fires” that will be caused by “improper wildfire hazard management” that puts “ideology ahead of fire science.”

Indeed, similar deforestation occurred in Australia, leading to predictable and catastrophic fires, exactly what proponents of deforestation threaten here.

The full report is available by clicking here.

For his alternative proposal, click here.

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