Cal Fire grant has created fire hazards in the East Bay Hills

Hoping to get the public’s attention, I will begin this story with its ending.  This is the concluding paragraph of my formal complaint to Cal Fire about its grant to UC Berkeley for a project that has increased fire hazards in the East Bay Hills, caused other significant environmental damage, and created conditions for further damage:

“In conclusion, the grant application for this project makes a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that is based on the assumption that a biofuels plant will generate electricity from the wood debris.  Such a plant has not been built and UC Berkeley apparently does not intend to build such a plant.  Other claims made in the grant application about carbon storage are based on inaccurate claims about carbon storage.  Grant guidelines state, “Failure to meet the agreed upon terms of achieving required GHG reduction may result in project termination and recovery of funds.”  In other words, Cal Fire should terminate this project and recover any funds that have been remitted to UC Berkeley.  The project is a misuse of grant funds because it will increase fire hazards and increase greenhouse gas emissions.  Without imputing motives, on the face of it, the grant application looks fraudulent.”

I published an article about this project last week that I invite you to revisit if you need a reminder of a project that has clear cut all non-native trees 100 feet on the north side of Claremont Ave. in Berkeley, leaving equally flammable native trees in place on the south side.  Huge piles of wood chips and logs are stacked along the road that were supposed to have been disposed of by generating electricity in a biofuels plant.  No such biofuels plant exists and there are no plans to build it.  The disposition of these potential bonfires is at the moment unknown.

The source of the funding for Cal Fire grants is California’s carbon cap-and-trade law that is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon emissions.  Therefore, the grant application required the applicant to prove that the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to qualify for the grant.  The grant application submitted by UC Berkeley claimed to meet this requirement by making a commitment to use the grant to build a biofuels plant. The biofuels plant would have generated electricity by burning wood fuel instead of burning fossil fuels. In fact, the project has significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions by destroying large, mature, healthy trees.  The carbon the trees have stored throughout their lifetimes is now being released into the atmosphere as the wood debris decays along the roadside.

UC Berkeley made other inaccurate claims about carbon storage in order to qualify for the grant:

  • Statements made in the grant application about carbon loss and storage by planting oaks are not accurate:
    1. Coast Live Oaks (CLO) do not live for “hundreds of years,” as erroneously claimed by the grant application. USDA plant data base says CLOs live about 250 years in the wild.  However, that estimate of longevity does not take into account that Sudden Oak Death has killed over 50 million oaks (CLOs and tan oaks) in California in the past 15 years.
    2. Blue Gum eucalyptus lives in its native range 200-400 years. It has lived in California for 160 years, where it has fewer predators than in its native range.
    3. The grant application states that carbon storage will be increased by “changing species composition to hardwoods.” In fact, eucalyptus is also a hardwood tree, making this an inaccurate, discriminatory distinction.
    4. Above-ground carbon storage in trees is largely a function of biomass of the tree. Therefore, larger trees store more carbon.  It follows that carbon storage is not increased by destroying large, mature, healthy trees and replacing them with saplings of smaller trees, such as oaks.  The carbon lost by destroying mature trees is never recovered by their smaller replacements with shorter lifespans.
  • Plans to plant oaks where non-native trees have been clear cut willfully ignore the realities of the accelerating epidemic of Sudden Oak Death (SOD) in the East Bay Hills. According to the press release for the 2020 SOD Blitz, “…overall the rate of SOD infections increased in the wildland urban interface, in spite of reduced rainfall. This is the first time in 13 years of SOD Blitz survey that infection rates increase in spite of reduced rainfall, suggesting SOD is becoming endemic at least on the Central coast of California.”  As Cal Fire knows, dead trees are a greater fire hazard than living trees.
  • The grant budget commits the grantee (UCB) to pay “volunteers” to plant oaks.  That budget line item is described in the budget narrative as being funded by volunteer, non-profit organizations over which UC Berkeley has no authority. A “volunteer” is, by definition, not required to perform the assigned task.  It follows, that calculations regarding carbon storage resulting from this project are not ensured by the project because the planting of oak trees is not ensured by the project.  The “cost” of this line item in the budget seems more theoretical than real.
  • Planting young trees will require frequent irrigation that is not funded by the grant. Given continuing and worsening drought, planting young trees without making a commitment to irrigating them is throwing good money after bad.  Rainfall to date is 26% of the previous year.  Rainfall the previous year was less than half the year before that.  Oaks are not more drought tolerant than eucalyptus that are native to an equally dry climate.

The grant application also displays ignorance of trees and the functions they perform in the environment. 

  • The trees that remain on the north side of the road are now more vulnerable to windthrow because they have lost protection from their neighbors on their windward side. Trees develop their defenses against the wind while they grow in response to the wind to which they are exposed.  In California, most wildfire events are associated with high winds, making windthrow and wildfire probable simultaneous events.
  • The run off from the eroded hillside will undoubtedly pollute the creek on the south side of the road with sediment and road run off.
Claremont Ave. west of Grizzly Peak Blvd, December 2020. Photo by Doug Prose.

The project is not a suitable evacuation route

Claremont Ave, west of the Cal Fire/UCB project is a residential neighborhood, heavily wooded with native trees that overhang the road.   Source Google Earth.

The justification for this project was to provide an evacuation route. It is a premise that makes little sense. There are no residences east of Grizzly Peak Blvd, where the project begins. The residential community on Claremont Ave. is downhill, west of the project. If the residential community needs to evacuate, it won’t be fleeing up hill. Residents will need to flee downhill, through a tunnel of native trees. The roadside through the residential community is heavily wooded in native oaks, bays, and buckeyes. High voltage power lines overhang the road.  Nothing has been done to clear that road for possible evacuation.  This residential community would benefit from the creation of a safe evacuation route, not the pointless project that was done.

Claremont Ave, west of Cal Fire/UCB project is heavily wooded with native trees that overhang the road.  There are also high-voltage power lines hanging over the road.  Source Google Earth.

What’s next?

I received the following promising reply from Cal Fire by the end of the day I sent the complaint:  We are in receipt of your email dated 1/14/2021 in regards to a Fire Prevention Grant awarded to the University of California Berkeley (UCB).  We will promptly begin investigating your concerns and allegations of UCB non-compliance with the grant’s guidelines and contractual agreement.  I will respond to you within 30 days with the results of our findings.  CAL FIRE takes the grant assistance programs very seriously so we will investigate thoroughly.”

What’s done cannot be undone.  The best we can hope for is that the strategy used to reduce fuel loads on Claremont Ave. won’t be used elsewhere.  My primary goal is to prevent this destructive approach from being used on 300 miles of roadside in Oakland, as the supporters of the UCB project on less than one mile on Claremont Ave are demanding.

Governor Newsom has proposed that the State budget should invest an additional $1 billion in reducing fire hazards in California.  The proposal includes $512 million for landscape-scale vegetation projects.  Cal Fire will probably administer those grants.  It is critically important that Cal Fire improve its evaluation of grant applications to avoid funding disastrous projects such as the project done by UC Berkeley on Claremont Ave.  There are many worthwhile projects that deserve funding, such as providing the residential community on Claremont Ave a safe evacuation route.