When a warehouse in Oakland burned to the ground, killing 36 young people on December 2, 2016, we learned that the City of Oakland is not inspecting many buildings for fire safety, as required by law. In fact, this particular warehouse had never been inspected because it wasn’t even on the database for such inspections. If it had been inspected, “they would have seen what visitors and former residents called a death trap and a tinder box: piles of wood, shingles and old furniture, extension cords and often-sparking electrical wires running willy-nilly throughout the structure, welding equipment and propane tanks scattered about — the kind of fire code violations that could have led inspectors to shutter the building immediately.” (East Bay Times, 12/8/16)
This tragic loss of young lives is an opportunity for Oakland to examine its priorities with respect to fire safety. Oakland, like most cities, does not have unlimited resources to address every public safety issue. Therefore, it must set priorities and in this case, Oakland needs to refocus its efforts where serious fire safety issues exist and where genuine economic need requires the city’s help. Specifically, we should stop destroying harmless trees and spend our limited resources on identifying and repairing unsafe living conditions that create fire hazards.
Our letter (below) to the elected and city officials of Oakland asking them to revise their priorities regarding fire safety, speaks for itself. If you agree with us about this issue, please write your own letter to your district council representative if you live in Oakland.
December 9, 2016
Dear Mayor Schaaf, (email@example.com)
The recent fire in a warehouse that killed 36 young people should be a wakeup call for city officials who say they are concerned about mitigating fire hazards. The City of Oakland wasted 10 years defending an indefensible plan to clear cut trees in the Oakland hills, based on the claim that it would reduce fire hazards. After cancellation of the FEMA grants that would have funded that project, Oakland has made a contractual commitment to spend $800,000 to develop a new plan for “vegetation management.”
Meanwhile, we have had many major fires of residential properties in the flat lands where trees played no role in the fires. On November 26, 2016, the recreation center at Mosswood Park burned to the ground, just 50 feet away from a huge eucalyptus tree that was not ignited by that fire.
And last Friday, a warehouse that should not have been rented to tenants and should not have been used to stage huge parties, burned to the ground. Although many complaints had been lodged about that warehouse, no inspections or code enforcement corrected the many safety violations. The media also informs us that there are many other warehouses in Oakland being used illegally with potentially unsafe conditions. We also understand that the City of Oakland does not have the staff needed to conduct inspections or ensure enforcement of building codes.
In other words, when it comes to fire safety, the City of Oakland is focusing on the wrong issues in the wrong places. Residents in the hills have the financial resources to create defensible space around their homes. Young people in the flatlands, do not have the resources to pay for safe housing. This is both a safety AND an equity issue.
Therefore, the City of Oakland should redirect its limited resources where serious safety issues exist and genuine economic need requires the City’s help. I am writing to ask that the contract to develop a “vegetation management plan” be cancelled and the money be spent to conduct inspections and to subsidize the mitigation of real fire hazards.
Ten years after UC Berkeley, City of Oakland, and East Bay Regional Park District applied for FEMA grants to fund the destruction of hundreds of thousands of non-native trees on 1,000 acres of public open space, FEMA announced its final decision on Thursday, March 5, 2015. FEMA’s announcement of that final decision, which was sent to those who commented on the draft plans, implied that the projects had been revised to be less destructive. In fact, those who take the time to read the final version of the plans will learn that the original plans are fundamentally unchanged in the final version.
East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) will destroy about 90% of the trees in its project area, as originally planned. “Thinning” is not an accurate description of EBRPD’s project. UC Berkeley (UCB) and City of Oakland will destroy 100% of all non-native trees on their project properties. On a small portion of UCB and Oakland property (29 of 460 acres), tree removals will be phased over the 10-year project period. In other words, the final version of these projects will destroy as many trees as originally proposed by the grant applicants. However, FEMA has refused to fund tree removals on Frowning Ridge (185 acres) because UC Berkeley removed hundreds of trees there before the Environmental Impact Statement was complete, in violation of FEMA policy.
Today the Hills Conservation Network, an Oakland, CA based environmental non-‐proﬁt, ﬁled suit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also naming the Regents of the University of California, the City of Oakland, and East Bay Regional Park District in the suit.
The suit was ﬁled in opposition to the Record of Decision released March 5, 2015 ﬁnalizing FEMA’s decision to award approximately $7.5 million in ﬁre risk mitigation grants. The suit contends that the Environmental Impact Study used as part of the grant process was signiﬁcantly ﬂawed, and as such cannot be used to justify awarding these funds.
The lawsuit argues that FEMA did not consider a reasonable range of alternatives and reached unsupportable conclusions in deciding to allow the three agencies named in the suit to remove large numbers of healthy trees, with the goal of eradicating certain species of non-‐native trees (acacia, Monterey pine, eucalyptus) by the end of ten years. HCN proposed a more nuanced approach that would have resulted in higher levels of ﬁre risk mitigation at a much lower cost and with far less environmental damage than the current plan that calls for the removal of well in excess of 100,000 healthy trees that provide shade canopy (preventing the growth of highly ﬂammable weeds) as well as storing tons of carbon that contribute to the greenhouse gases warming our planet.
This step marks the latest chapter in this process that began in 2005. During the Draft EIS review in 2013 approximately 13,000 comment letters were received by FEMA, 90% of them opposed to the proposed projects. In response to this public outcry FEMA reworked the EIS, and while the Final EIS is somewhat less destructive than the Draft EIS, it essentially calls for the same level of environmental damage, but over a longer time period.
The Hills Conservation Network is an Oakland, California based 501c3 comprised of residents of the Oakland hills that were directly aﬀected by the 1991 ﬁre. Several members of the group lost their homes in this conﬂagration and have committed themselves to driving change in Oakland to ensure that similar events never happen again. Members of HCN have been involved in the Grand Jury investigation of the ’91 ﬁre and in developing enhanced emergency response capabilities in Oakland.
Please direct inquiries to Dan Grassetti at 510-‐849-‐2601.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been considering grant applications for “fire hazard mitigation” in the East Bay since 2005, when the first of these applications was submitted. After years of debate about whether or not the projects achieve the stated purpose and at what cost to the taxpayers and the environment, FEMA finally agreed to resolve the controversial issues by mandating an environmental impact review, which began in 2010. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was published in April 2013 and the public comment period on that draft closed in June 2013.
FEMA tells us they received over 3,500 public comments on the draft, so needless to say it is taking some time to analyze and respond to those comments. Based on questions raised by public comments, FEMA sent questions to the applicants in October 2013, requesting clarification of their project plans. The applicants responded in November 2013, by revising their project plans. UC Berkeley and the City of Oakland responded that they now plan to “thin” rather than to remove all non-native trees, consistent with the original intentions of East Bay Regional Park District. FEMA now predicts that the final EIS will be published around the end of 2014.
Grant applicants are champing at the bit
The applicants for these grants are getting restless for award of the grant which will fund the removal of tens of thousands of trees or more.We recently reported to our readers that UC Berkeley began to destroy trees on its property in late August 2014, before the grant has been approved. The trees that were destroyed are still lying on the ground, looking like bonfires waiting to happen.
More recently, Claremont Canyon Conservancy has successfully recruited 12 East Bay elected officials to ask FEMA for immediate release of the grant funds, as well as “complete removal” of all eucalyptus trees, rather than thinning as originally proposed by East Bay Regional Park District and as revised by the City of Oakland and UC Berkeley in November 2013. This request was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Contra Costa Times, and ABC TV news. Based on these news sources, as well as the website of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, we can report that the following East Bay elected officials have signed this request:
City of Oakland
Jean Quan, Mayor of Oakland
Dan Kalb, Oakland City Council
Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland City Council
Larry Reid, Oakland City Council
Libby Schaaf, Oakland City Council
City of Berkeley
Tom Bates, Mayor of Berkeley
Jesse Arreguin, Berkeley City Council
Laurie Capitelli, Berkeley City Council
Susan Wengraf, Berkeley City Council
Gordon Wozniak, Berkeley City Council
State of California
Nancy Skinner, State Assembly
Loni Hancock, State Senate
We have an unsigned copy of a letter to FEMA:
– end letter –
We cannot report with confidence that all these politicians sent the same letter because Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb is the only politician who has responded to our public records request. Mr. Kalb’s request is similar, but requests “funding to remove a substantial number of the eucalyptus trees.” Mr. Kalb’s letter seems to acknowledge that requesting removal of all eucalyptus trees would be inconsistent with the City of Oakland’s November 2013 revision of its original grant application; he says, “I know that the City of Oakland has submitted some revised language as requested by [FEMA].” The elected officials who signed the above letter do not seem to realize that their request contradicts the agreement with FEMA in November 2013 to thin rather than to remove all non-native trees on their properties. Or perhaps they have changed their minds.
Stunning display of ignorance
We are rarely surprised by the extreme views of native plant advocates, but the letter sent by East Bay elected officials is a stunning display of ignorance, mendacity, or both:
The claim that native plants are less flammable than non-native plants is entirely fallacious. The indigenous landscape of California is highly flammable as is demonstrated by wildfires throughout California every year. In virtually every case, those wildfires occur in native landscapes.
This statement is not even superficially logical: “thinning will enable the Diablo Winds to blow through the eucalyptus more readily, thus enhancing the fire danger…” Obviously, destroying ALL the trees will provide even less of a barrier to Diablo winds.
The public record does not support the contention that eucalyptus is more flammable than any other type of vegetation. HERE is a report of the public record of the 1991 Oakland wildfire.
Oaks and bays have indeed grown in Clarement Canyon since eucalypts were removed there because it is a riparian corridor where trees are sheltered from the wind and water is funneled to them. However, that is not typical of regrowth after removal of the tree canopy in most locations where eucalypts have been removed. The more likely outcome is non-native annual grasses, as explained HERE by the environmental consultant who evaluated the plans of UC Berkeley. Since fire ignites more readily in grass, fire hazards are not reduced by this transition.
News sources also interviewed Jon Kaufman, a spokesperson for Claremont Canyon Conservancy who expressed his frustration that their desire for the destruction of non-native trees in the East Bay Hills is being delayed by FEMA: “With fire season approaching, it’s a good time to remind FEMA they need to get off their asses.” His insulting approach cannot be called a charm offensive.
Mr. Kaufman is quoted as making the following misstatement of fact: “But Kaufman said no spraying would be involved and that herbicide will be applied topically to the stumps with a brush.” We have heard native plant advocates make this claim many times. Perhaps some of them even believe it. FEMA asked for clarification from grant applicants about their plans for herbicide applications in October 2013. The applicants replied in November 2013 that they will apply Garlon according to the manufacturer’s label.
Mr. Kaufman’s claim that herbicide will not be sprayed is contradicted by the manufacturer of Garlon, DowAgra. The manufacturer describes the method of cut-stump application: “Treat the exposed cambium area and the root collar (exposed bark on the side of the stump) down to the soil line. Be sure to treat the entire circumference of the tree. To ensure effective control on large trees, also treat any exposed roots (knees) that surround the stump.” This method is illustrated on the manufacturer’s website by videos of the applicator using spraying equipment.
The herbicides needed to destroy non-native vegetation are also foliar sprayed, as described by the Draft EIS. It is a fiction that non-native trees and plants can be eradicated without spraying herbicides. The use of large quantities of herbicides is nearly as controversial as the loss of our urban forest.
Are you a voter in Oakland or Berkeley?
If you are a voter in Oakland or Berkeley and you care about the preservation of our urban forest and/or object to the hazards created by spraying our public lands with herbicides, you should know that some of the politicians who signed the letter to FEMA are on the ballot on November 4, 2014. You can take their support for clear cutting all eucalyptus in the Oakland/Berkeley hills into consideration in your vote. Better yet, you could write to them to tell them your opinion of their misguided support for removing all non-native trees on public property. We do not expect our public officials to be experts in horticulture or fire science. However, we think it is irresponsible for public officials to endorse the position of a particular interest group without making an effort to inform themselves of opposing viewpoints.
Here is a list of the candidates you will find on your ballot:
City of Berkeley – Candidates for City Council
Jesse Arreguin – District 4 – running unopposed
There is also a petition in opposition to these destructive projects available HERE.
The only logical resolution
One wonders how FEMA can now award grants to the City of Oakland or to UC Berkeley. In November 2013, these public agencies told FEMA, in writing, that they will thin rather than clear cut all non-native trees on their properties. In August 2014, UC Berkeley destroyed all eucalyptus trees on a portion of the project area, which should be a demonstration of UCB’s intentions. Actions speak louder than words, even written words.
In the case of the City of Oakland, elected officials in positions of authority, including the sitting Mayor of Oakland, have contradicted the City of Oakland’s written commitment to FEMA to thin rather than to clear-cut by asking FEMA to immediately release grant funds to clear-cut all eucalyptus from their properties.
How can FEMA trust these agencies to do what they have said in writing they intend to do? The only logical response to the request of these elected officials is to inform UC Berkeley and the City of Oakland that they have effectively rescinded their grant applications.
Citizens for Responsible Oakland Government recommend that residents of Oakland’s Wildfire Prevention District (WPD) vote NO on a 10-year extension of the parcel tax that funds the assessment district in the Oakland Hills. Here’s their opinion of the parcel tax:
“This tax does nothing to fund fire fighting personnel or equipment
This tax asks us to pay again for services that we already pay for
This WPD has been mismanaged for the past 10 years
This tax has not made us safer and has not helped reduce insurance rates
Click HERE to see a video of interviews with Oakland residents who have decided to vote NO on this parcel tax. Ballots were mailed to property owners in the assessment district two weeks ago and must be mailed back by November 13, 2013.
Residents in the Oakland hills will soon have an opportunity to vote for (or against) a renewal of funding for the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District (WPAD). A map of the Wildfire Prevention District (WPD) is available here. The Hills Conservation Network has described the WPAD in its latest newsletter and is asking some excellent questions about how the revenue has been spent over the past 10 years and why the special tax on parcels within the WPD is necessary.
The Hills Conservation Network is a non-profit organization of residents in the East Bay Hills, many of whom are survivors of the wildfire of 1991. They are deeply concerned about fire safety, but they are opposed to vegetation management that does not reduce fire hazards. They produce a very informative newsletter which is available on their website (here). We are reprinting their article about the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District with their permission.
Will You Vote “NO” or “Yes” for a Special Tax to Fund WPD?
That is the question Oakland residents registered to vote within the boundaries of the Wildfire Prevention District (aka Community Facilities District No. 2013-1-CFD-Wildfire District) must answer. The ballot measure will be mailed at the beginning of November. Voter information and sample ballots will be mailed in October. If the ballot measure gets a “yes” vote from 2/3 of all registered voters (renters and property owners) within the WPD-CFD, a Special Tax will be levied for 10 years (until 2023-2024) on each taxable parcel of private property. Parcel owners will pay the $78 annual tax. Condo parcels, multi-family parcels and undeveloped parcels will be taxed at lower rates.
Public and non-profit properties (such as those owned by EBRPD, UC, and Oakland), currently included in the WPAD, will be exempt from the Special Tax. The $78 Special Tax is an increase of $13.00 (20%) over the $65.00 per parcel that has been the WPAD annual assessment over the past 10 years.
That $65 per parcel doesn’t sound like much money, but it added up to approximately $1,700,000 each year, $17 million over the past 10 years. With the increase to $78.00 annually for each parcel in the WPD-CFD, if the Special Tax passes, the WPD will take in about $20 million over the next 10 years.
What will taxpayers get for that money? This is from info promoting the Special Tax: “Since the establishment of the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, Oakland has not had a significant devastating fire in the hills, while other communities that do not have a dedicated service district have experienced large fires.”
Everyone who lives in the hills worries about fire. Although some properties are obviously not in compliance with Oakland’s Fire code, most property owners do their best to maintain defensible space. But it does no one any good to stoke fear of fire in an effort to renew a tax.
In fact, none of the communities surrounding Oakland (Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, San Leandro) have had a major fire since the tragic 1991 fire. Most of these communities are similar to Oakland in having wildland/urban hillsides. None has a WPAD that takes credit for preventing a major fire during the past 22 years. One might even consider the WPAD’s boast an insult to Oakland’s Fire Department [OFD], which is made up of skilled, professional firefighters.
Certainly the lack of a WPAD had little to do with whether there was a major hills fire before 2003. It’s more certain that narrow roads choked with parked cars, lack of water supply, extreme drought conditions, dry brush, and Diablo wind gusts exceeding 65 mph caused the 1991 fire to spread out of control.
Over the past 22 years, OFD’s performance has improved. Some examples: increased wildland training, mutual response area agreements, better communication with other fire agencies in the region, and annual response drills. We have new fire stations in the hills and annual inspections of residences and landscaping to make sure they comply with fire codes. OFD has a new fire chief from whom we can expect more improvements in fire fighting and prevention.
If the ballot measure to fund WPD passes, WPD services would be similar to WPAD services, including, but not limited to the following:
Goat grazing program on city property to clear weeds within district boundaries
Property owner incentives such as providing chipping and disposal of yard waste
Vegetation management to control weeds on city property; roadside mowing along major public roads; maintaining fire breaks
Roving fire patrols on red flag days
Public outreach; creating and distributing information and tips on fire prevention
In the year ending June 30, 2013, the WPAD spent $1,600,855. It’s difficult to find out from nontransparent WPAD records where the money went, that is, what your parcel tax pays for. Out of the $1.6 million+ , we know that about $357,600 paid for the goat grazing, and about $213,500 went to other activities. The lion’s share of the money (∼$1.1 million) went to “vegetation management.” We have asked for details of this $1.1 million expense, but at this point we have not received the information.
We believe that the OFD does the roving patrols and the housing inspections. We don’t know who does the roadside mowing; we assume it is done by Public Works.
Before you vote on the Special Tax, you might want to seek answers to these questions:
If the inspections, roving patrols and roadside mowing are done by OFD and PW personnel already on the clock, why are we being asked to pay again for these services?
Why are heavily wooded, brush laden nonprofit properties exempt from the Special Tax?
Why should parcel owners pay the Special Tax when it will be used almost exclusively to clear City of Oakland land? We already pay taxes to maintain city property such as parks. Why should we be taxed again?
Why should a Citizens Advisory Committee [CAC] have the power to direct OFD professional firefighters in programs (such as protecting native plants, even flammable ones) that the CAC (and its supporters) consider important, even if they do nothing to reduce fire risk? Did you know that the WPAD/WPD wants to hire someone just to identify native plants?
Why can’t the Special Tax funds be used to supplement OFD services in ways that might really prevent fires? Wouldn’t the money be better spent to hire more firefighters so there will be no need to have three “brownout” days each month when fire houses throughout Oakland—even in the WPD—are left empty and neighborhoods are unprotected? Wouldn’t the money be better spent to upgrade emergency communications, or buy emergency vehicles, or find a way to get more water for hills fires, help neighborhoods underground utility wires, or create a viable emergency plan for Oakland?
The OFD has the experience, training and responsibility to prevent and fight fires. They stand ready to risk their lives for us. Why do we need another tax for services, such as residence inspections, roadside mowing, roving fire patrols, even the goat grazing program, that the OFD, PW or contractors could do without a WPD? Why should WPD money be spent on programs that have nothing to do with preventing fire, but instead promote agendas such as the dogma that native plants and trees resist fire? What will we really be getting for that $20 million?
Those who have a sincere desire to reduce fire hazards in the Bay Area would be wise to turn their attention away from the distracting and irrelevant debate about the flammability of native compared to non-native plants and trees. California native ecology is dependent upon and adapted to fire. The native landscape is not less flammable than non-native plants and trees. Most firestorms in California are wind-driven fires in which everything burns, including native and non-native trees and plants as well as any buildings in the path of the fire.
Rather, the creation of “defensible space” immediately around your home is your best defense against the loss of your home in a wildfire. Creating defensible space means reducing fire fuels around your home by appropriate pruning and maintenance, such as limbing up trees to remove the fire ladder to the tree canopy and removing leaf litter. Defensible space is intended to slow the progress of fire to your home.
In this post we will visit several reputable sources of information about fire safety that advise homeowners about how to protect themselves, particularly those who live in the Wildland-Urban Interface where fire hazards are greatest. We will see that all these sources of information have in common that they do not single-out specific species of plants or trees. Rather they emphasize that how vegetation is pruned and maintained is more important to reducing fire hazard and that materials we use in building our homes are equally important to our safety. These sources of information are not native plant advocates. Their advice is not based on a desire to destroy non-native plants and trees in the belief that their destruction will benefit native plants and trees.
Firewise Communities is an internet resource provided by the National Fire Protection Association and co-sponsored by the US Forest Service and the US Department of the Interior. This resource offers on-line courses in fire safety. In the course on “Firewise Landscaping” these criteria are listed as the characteristics of fire-resistant plants: low leaf litter, high water retention ability, high salt retention ability, lack of aromatic oils, low fuel volume, height and spread that fits well into the intended space. Some native and some non-native plants fit these criteria and some do not. For example, although the leaves of eucalyptus contain aromatic oils, so do the leaves of the native California bay laurel.
Homeowners in the Wildland-Urban Interface should focus on creating defensible space around their homes rather than on choosing particular plant or tree species. CALFire guidelines for creating defensible space do not advise for or against any particular species of plant or tree. Rather CALFire focuses on how to prune and maintain vegetation around your home and create a “defensible space” around your home with low fuel volume, as illustrated in this brochure on their website.
Likewise the UC Berkeley Fire Center in their brochure “Home Landscaping for Fire” says, “It is important to remember that given certain conditions, all plants can burn…how your plants are maintained and where they are placed is as important as the species of plants that you choose…landscape management (e.g., pruning, irrigation, and cleanup) have a greater impact on whether or not a plant ignites than does the species.” It is ironic that UC Berkeley is engaged in the destruction of every non-native tree and plant on its property, despite the advice on its own website about fire safety, which is obviously being ignored.
The August 2010 issue of Sunset Magazine includes a comprehensive “Wildfire Survival Guide,” including advice about planting a fire-safe garden.
The City of Oakland passed an ordinance in 2006 requiring homeowners to maintain defensible space around their homes and voters in Oakland agreed to tax themselves to pay for the enforcement of this requirement. Unfortunately, a drive in the Oakland hills informs us that these requirements are not being enforced.
This home is particularly vulnerable because fire tends to travel up hill. Firewise says that a 30% slope will accelerate the rate of spread of fire to twice the speed of fire on flat ground.
Wouldn’t the people of Oakland be better served by enforcement of requirements for defensible space around homes rather than paying shared costs of $662,280 for a FEMA grant to eradicate all non-native vegetation from 325 acres of wildland? (see “Our Mission, Projects in the East Bay”) Oakland is flat broke and one of the most violent cities in the country. Eighty policemen were recently laid off and 120 more are likely to be laid off if voters don’t vote to tax themselves further. Shouldn’t homeowners be required to create defensible space around their homes where their lives and property are most at risk before “vegetation management” is extended far beyond the perimeter of homes?