Lessons learned from fires in the North Bay

Recent wildfires in the North Bay were devastating.  44 people were killed by the fires and over 8,000 structures were destroyed, including homes and businesses.  We don’t want to portray that fire as anything other than a tragedy.  However, for those with a sincere interest in fire safety, there are many lessons to be learned from that fire.  If people will open their eyes and their minds to the reality of those fires, there are opportunities to reduce fire hazards revealed by those fires.

What burned?

Watching videos of the fires is the best way to answer the question, “What burned?”  Here are two videos of the fires that we found on the internet by doing a search for “videos of wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties.”  If you weren’t watching the news during the fires, you might start by looking at these videos.  There are many more videos on the internet of those fires.

Here’s what we can see in these videos:

  • The fire front moved rapidly through native conifers and oaks as well as through grassland and chaparral. After watching hours of these videos, we did not see any eucalyptus trees on fire.
  • Many homes burned without igniting the trees and vegetation around them. If the photo was taken while the home was still burning, the vegetation is rarely engaged in the fires.  If the photo was taken after the home burned, much of the vegetation is burned as well.  In other words, the vegetation was ignited by the burning homes, not vice versa.
  • In videos of actively burning homes, the air is filled with burning embers. The source of those embers cannot be determined from the videos.

Nothing in these videos suggests that native vegetation is less flammable than non-native vegetation.  Nothing in these videos suggests that the vegetation is more flammable than the structures that burned. 

CalFire has identified the specific locations where four of the fires originated.  Two are in groves of oak trees and two are in grassland and chaparral.  Photos of those specific locations are available HERE.

UPDATE:  On November 16, 2017, the Bay Area Open Space Council held a symposium about the fires in the North Bay that was billed as a “Community discussion on the impacts of the recent wildfires.”  Bay Nature magazine moderated a panel of experts representing CalFire and 8 managers of public and private open space reserves. 

The Director of Conservation for the Bay Area Open Space Council showed a slide of the vegetation types that burned in the fires.  With the exception of vineyards, only 2% of the burned vegetation was “urban.”  All other vegetation was native grassland, chaparral, and native trees. 

Vegetation that burned in the North Bay files of October 2017. Source: Bay Area Open Space Council

The speaker from CalFire said that we must learn to live with fire.  He suggested that the way to accomplish that goal is with better land use planning, using fire and ember resistant building materials, creating defensible space, and improving the health of our forests. 

The slides of the presenters and an audio recording of their presentations is available  HERE

What role did the weather play in the fire?

All sources of information about the fire reported that strong winds were the biggest factor in the rapid advance of the fire.  The wind was associated with very high temperatures and it came from the east.  This type of wind is called a Diablo Wind in Northern California.  In Southern California it is called Santa Ana Winds.  In the Mediterranean, it is called Mistral Winds.

In coastal Mediterranean climates such as California and the Mediterranean regions of France and Spain, the wind ordinarily comes off of the ocean.  Because the ocean is cooler than the land, the wind is usually a source of moisture and cooler temperatures.  During periods of high summer temperatures, the wind sometimes shifts direction and starts to blow off the hot interior, drying the vegetation and increasing temperatures.

Such winds were also the main cause of the wildfire in the Oakland/Berkeley hills in 1991Jan Null was the lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in the Bay Area in 1991.  He recently said of the 1991 fire:  “At the time a fire starts, the really relevant conditions are the wind speeds, the temperature and the humidity. Again, the humidity goes to the dryness of the fuel. The temperatures also go to the dryness of the fuels and the wind speeds go to what the spread of the fire is. If we’d had that same Oakland Hills fire without any wind, we wouldn’t be talking about it now.”

Most wildfires in California are caused by strong, dry, hot winds.  Everything burns in a wind-driven fire.  Both native and non-native vegetation burns in a wind-driven fire.  Homes in the path of a wind-driven fire are more likely to burn than the vegetation that surrounds the homes because the vegetation contains more moisture.

Why are wildfires becoming more frequent and more intense?

Wildfires are becoming more frequent and more intense all over the world because of climate change.  Temperatures are higher, drought is more frequent, strong winds are more frequent.

Wildfires in the west have become more severe because of increased temperatures and lower humidity at night.  When it doesn’t cool off at night, the trees don’t have an opportunity to regain the moisture they have lost during the high daytime temperatures.  In the past, firefighters could count on wildfires to die down at night.  Now they can’t count on colder nights to make the fires less severe. (2)  Since the fires in the North Bay started in the middle of the night and did the most damage that first night, this observation about warmer nights is particularly relevant to those fires.

Deforestation is the second greatest source of the greenhouse gases causing climate change Every healthy tree we destroy releases its stored carbon as it decomposes.  Every tree that dies of drought releases its carbon as it decomposes.  Every tree that burns in a wildfire releases its carbon as it burns.

What role did power lines play in the fire?

The investigation of the recent wildfires in the North Bay is not complete, but early indications suggest that power lines probably ignited some of the fires.  Some power poles fell over in the strong winds, causing the power lines to break and spark ignitions.  Some trees were blown into the power lines, causing them to break or spark.

California State law requires that trees be pruned at least 4 feet from the power lines.  Although PG&E says they are inspecting thousands of miles of power lines to identify potential interference with trees, these inspections are apparently not adequate.  After the fires started, PG&E claimed they had removed 236,000 “dead and dying” trees and “destroyed or pruned” 1.2 million healthy trees in 2016.  These destroyed trees contribute to climate change.

California State law also requires that power poles are capable of withstanding winds of a certain velocity.  However, power poles fell over during the recent fires when wind speeds were below that standard set by State law.

Apparently PG&E’s efforts to inspect and maintain power lines were inadequate and State laws intended to ensure the safety of power lines are not being enforced.

Did Sudden Oak Death contribute to the fire?

Sudden Oak Death (SOD) killed 5 million oak trees in California from 1994 to 2016, when that number was reported by a study.  The study also said that the SOD epidemic could not be stopped and would eventually kill all oaks in California.  More recent estimates are that 5 to 10 million oaks have been killed by SOD. (2)

SOD is caused by a pathogen that is spread by rain and wind.  We had a great deal of rain in 2016 and 2017, which has greatly increased the spread of SOD.  In the past, SOD has been mostly confined to wildlands.  Now it is found in many urban areas, including San Francisco and the East Bay.  In the most recent SOD survey done in spring 2017, new infections were found on the UC Berkeley campus, the UC arboretum, and the San Francisco Presidio. (2)

The scientist at UC Berkeley who conducts the annual survey of SOD infections reports that “A dramatic increase this year in the number of oaks, manzanita and native plants infected by the tree-killing disease known as sudden oak death likely helped spread the massive fires that raged through the North Bay…” (3)

Dead trees are more flammable than living trees because living trees contain more moisture.  In addition to more than 5 million dead oak trees in California, 102 million native conifer trees in the Sierra Nevada foothills were killed by drought, warming temperatures and native beetle infestations during the drought years. All of these trees are native to California.  This is another indication that native trees are not less flammable than living non-native trees.

The ranges of native plants and animals are changing because of climate change.  They must move to find the climate conditions to which they are adapted.  Native plant “restorations” that attempt to reintroduce plants where they existed 250 years ago, prior to the arrival of Europeans, do not take into consideration that the plants may no longer be adapted to those locations.  That’s why many “restorations” are not successful.

If you haven’t seen the Sutro Forest, you should do so soon. The plans are to destroy about 50% of the trees and most of the understory.

Native plant advocates have their heads in the sand about Sudden Oak Death.  The recently published Environmental Impact Report for San Francisco’s Sutro Forest announced UCSF’s intention to destroy about 50% of the non-native trees on Mount Sutro and replace some of them with native trees, including oaks and bays.  Bays are the vector of the pathogen causing SOD.  The EIR said NOTHING about Sudden Oak Death, nor did it acknowledge the existence of the disease in Golden Gate Park and the arboretum, less than a mile away from Mount Sutro.  What’s the point of destroying healthy trees and replacing them with trees that are likely to die in the near future?

Where to go from here?

We are not powerless against bad decisions of public utilities and the forces of nature.  There are things we can do to address these causes of wildfires in California:

  • We must address the causes of climate change. We must stop destroying healthy trees and we must plant more trees.  We must choose species of trees that have a future in the changed climate.  The trees must be adapted to current and anticipated climate conditions.  We must quit destroying trees simply because they are not native.  Non-native trees are not more flammable than native trees and many are better adapted to current climate conditions.
  • We must regulate our public utilities and demand that regulations be enforced. The Public Utilities Commission initiated an effort to improve the safety of power lines in 2007, after destructive wildfires. The utility companies have been actively dragging their feet to prevent new regulations because they would increase costs, despite the fact that they would improve safety.
  • Improved regulation of utilities should minimize the need to destroy healthy trees, by undergrounding power lines in the most high-risk areas, improving insulation of the wires, replacing wooden power poles with metal and/or concrete poles, installing sensors that identify breaks in the power lines, etc.

Demonizing non-native trees is preventing us from addressing the causes of climate change and the closely related issue of increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires.  Let’s open our eyes and our minds to the reality of wildfires in California and develop the policies that will reduce fire hazards.

(1) The Detwiler Fire is active at night, and a scientist says that’s relatively new,” Fresno Bee, July 22, 2017

(2) “Disease killing oaks spreads,” East Bay Times, October 24, 2017

(3) “Disease in trees pointed at in fires,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 2017

Destroying trees causes erosion and landslide risk

We are republishing with permission a post from the Save Mount Sutro Forest blog.  At the end of the Save Sutro post we add an example of erosion in the East Bay caused by tree removals by UC Berkeley. 


When UCSF  (or SF Recreation and Parks Department) discusses “Safety” in the forests on Mt Sutro and Mt Davidson,  they generally focus on fire hazard (relatively low in these damp cloud forests), or on the risk of being hit by a falling tree (about half the risk of being hit by lightning). Tree removal could actually increase both those risks, by drying out the forest and by increasing windthrow – the risk of  the remaining trees being blown over.

But what we want to talk about in this post is landslide risk.

Two weeks ago, a horrible mudslide in Washington State engulfed homes and took lives. Some scientists think logging trees in the area contributed to the tragedy. This has implications for Sutro Forest, which grows on a steep hill – and also for the other San Francisco forest, Mount Davidson. Tree removal, ongoing and planned, could destabilize the mountainsides.

Mount Sutro forest viewed from southeast (Twin Peaks)LOGGING AND LANDSLIDES

On March 22, 2014, a huge landslide destroyed the small Washington community of Oso. Rain was of course a factor, as was erosion at the base of the slope. But it’s probable that tree-cutting above the slide area was an important factor too. An article in the Seattle Times quotes a report from Lee Benda, a University of Washington geologist. It said tree removal could increase soil water “on the order of 20 to 35 percent” — and that the impact could last 16-27 years, until new trees matured. Benda looked at past slides on the hill and found they occurred within five to 10 years of harvests [i.e. felling trees for timber].

There had been red flags before. The area was second growth forest, grown back from logging in the 1920s/30s. Over 300 acres were again logged in the late 1980s.

  • The first time regulators tried to stop logging on the hill was in 1988. But the owner of the timber successfully argued that measures could be taken to mitigate the risk. Eventually, the state only blocked it from logging some 48 acres, and the owners  gave in on that.
  • In 2004, new owners applied to cut 15 acres; when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) objected, they halved the area and re-located the cut. DNR gave approval, subject to no work during heavy rain and for a day afterward. The tree-cutting finished in August 2005.
  • In January 2006, there was a major landslide 600 feet from the cut zone. The state built a log wall to shore up the slope.
  • The owners continued logging. In 2009, they removed 20% of the trees. In 2011, they removed another 15%. In 2014, the hillside collapsed.

The regulators were aware of the risk; they thought they were mitigating it with their restrictions and reaching a compromise with the owners. But it wasn’t enough. Destabilizing the mountainside is a long-term thing; the effects can show up in months, but it’s more likely to take years.


We know our hills are prone to slides. Here’s a geological map of Mt Sutro and surrounding areas. The blue zones show where there’s a potential landslide risk:

Blue areas show "potential for permanent ground displacements..."
Blue areas show “potential for permanent ground displacements…”

This next map is from a UCSF document. The pink areas and wiggly arrows indicate landslide risk. The double-arrows show where actual landslides seem to have occurred in the past.

Pink areas and wiggly arrows show landslide risk; double line arrows show past landslides.
Pink areas and wiggly arrows show landslide risk; double line arrows show past landslides.
Landslide under blue tarp. South Ridge at top left.
Landslide under blue tarp. South Ridge at top left.

This slope in the Forest Knolls neighborhood was covered in a blue tarp for months after the slope became destabilized by tree removal…

This other blue tarp is on the hillside above Medical Center Way. It was installed soon after some extensive work on the trail in that area, with undergrowth being cleared and trails realigned. When we enquired why it was there, UCSF said there had been some rock slides, and this was a temporary solution.

This photograph was taken in March 2013. A year later, the blue tarp is still there.

blue tarp above Medical Center WayFor more evidence, there’s the ongoing situation in Twin Peaks, where erosion and rockfalls in rainy weather are ongoing. There, it matters less, because it’s not falling on homes. Landslides on Mt Sutro or Mt Davidson have the potential to damage homes.



While it’s possible that a slide could happen within months of the tree-felling, it could also happen 6-8 years later as the root systems rot away. It could happen in any year until the trees grow back and conditions are right for water-logging. On that fateful Washington slope, the average was 5-10 years. No one wants to find out the average for San Francisco slopes.

We ask the land managers for these forests to stop removing trees and large shrubs that have successfully stabilized our hillsides for decades.


Addendum:  About 10 years ago, UC Berkeley removed about 18,000 trees on 150 acres of its property.  This is a photo of erosion that resulted from that tree removal on Grizzly Peak Blvd close to the intersection with Claremont Ave.  This erosion has been getting steadily worse for at least 5 years.  The only remediation has been plastic and sandbags, which are clearly not capable of preventing further erosion. 

Grizzly Peak Blvd, south of Claremont Ave.  Berkeley, California
Grizzly Peak Blvd, south of Claremont Ave. Berkeley, California

California Invasive Plant Council fails to make the case that eucalyptus is allelopathic

In this post we will continue to critique the assessment of the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) that Blue Gum eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) is invasive.  One of the arguments that Cal-IPC used to reach this conclusion is that chemicals in the leaves of eucalyptus suppress the germination of native plant species:  “[E. globulus] inhibits germination and growth of native plant species.”   This property is called allelopathy.

Many plants, both native and non-native have such allelopathic properties.  Therefore it is important both to determine if eucalyptus has such properties, and to compare eucalyptus to native tree species to determine if suppression of germination of competing species is any more likely under eucalyptus than native tree species.  One of the references provided by Cal-IPC compares germination success of three native plant species using both eucalyptus leaves and oak leaves:  “The Effect of Eucalyptus and Oak Leaf Extracts on California Native Plants” (1)

This unpublished master’s degree thesis does not prove that eucalyptus leaf extracts inhibit growth of native plants.  The study uses two different methods to test the hypothesis that eucalyptus leaf extracts inhibit growth of native plants.

In the first method, the seeds of three native species (two bunch grasses and a perennial forb) were germinated in petri dishes in sand soaked with a solution of the masticated leaves of eucalyptus and oak.  Two of the species of seeds grew shorter roots in the eucalyptus solution than in the oak solution.  The third species of seed grew longer roots in the eucalyptus solution than in the oak solution.  The percent of germination was lower in the eucalyptus solution than in the oak solution for two of three of the species of seeds and the same in the third species of seed.

The second method used by this study was to test germination success in the soil of eucalyptus compared to oak soil.  No significant difference was found in germination success when seeds were planted in the soil:

“The Eucalyptus soil treatment did not result in germination inhibition relative to the control which suggests that allelochemicals present in the leaves are reduced or absent in the soil.”  (1)

Since natural germination occurs in the soil rather than in petri dishes soaked in concentrated solutions, this study does not substantiate the statement that E. globulus “inhibits germination and growth of native species.”

Using our eyes to test the theory

We don’t doubt that the leaves of eucalyptus contain chemicals.  But the leaves of other trees do as well.  The question is not whether or not the leaves of trees contain chemicals, but rather do they prevent the germination and growth of other species of plants?  The fact is no study has proved that the chemicals in the leaves of eucalyptus are more likely to prevent the survival of native species of plants than any other tree species, whether native or non-native.  We can see with our own eyes that eucalyptus forests often have a thriving understory of both native and non-native plants.  Here are just a few examples of local eucalyptus forests that have such an understory:

The management plan for San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program describes the eucalyptus forest on Mount Davidson as follows:

“Although the overstory is dominated by eucalyptus, when all species were considered within the urban forest at Mount Davidson (point data), native species accounted for 36 percent of the understory cover and 21 out of 50 species were native…Pacific reed grass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis) does not have a state or federal special-status rating, but San Francisco is at the southern edge of this species’ range. This species can be found in several locations on Mount Davidson”

Native Pacific reed grass under girdled eucalyptus tree on Mount Davidson
Native Pacific reed grass under girdled eucalyptus tree on Mount Davidson

The 2011 “Albany Hill Creekside Master Plan” describes the understory of the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill as follows:

“The eastern portion of the eucalyptus forest has a [native] toyon understory as identified in 1991.  The toyon appears to be a wider band than shown in 1991 and covers approximately 2.0 acres…It was noted in a 1972 article in the California Native Plant Society publication Fremontia that the toyon has been introduced by either man or birds.  Native species [in the eucalyptus forest] include toyon, coast live oak, coyote brush, blue wild rye grass, and poison oak.”  

Native toyon under eucalyptus on Albany Hill
Native toyon under eucalyptus on Albany Hill

Finally, the understory of the dense eucalyptus forest on Mount Sutro is the richest understory we have personally witnessed.  Its understory is composed of both native (most notably elderberry) and non-native species.

The lush, green understory on Mount Sutro.  Courtesy Save Sutro Forest.
The lush, green understory on Mount Sutro. Courtesy Save Sutro Forest.

We give the last word on the scientific question of the allelopathic properties of eucalyptus to R.G. Florence of the Department of Forestry at The Australian National University.  An Australian scientist is not under the same pressure to find a negative story to tell about eucalyptus.  Professor Florence reports that a world survey of 3,000 articles about allelopathy found “…that the phenomenon of direct chemical interaction in natural communities, in the face of natural selection pressure, must be regarded as rare.”  And further, “While [allelopathy] is an attractive concept, there is no certainty that this occurs to any appreciable extent in nature.” (2)  These observations are certainly consistent with the reality of the eucalyptus forest in the San Francisco Bay Area, where an understory of both native and non-native plants is often found.

If not allelopathy, then what suppresses understory growth?

We have hiked as often in oak woodland in California as we have eucalyptus forests.  We find the understory in the oak woodland as varied as any eucalyptus forest.  Sometimes we don’t find much understory in either type of forest.  A redwood forest has the sparsest understory of any of these three tree species.

What these forest types have in common is that there is a layer of leaf litter under them that suppresses germination and growth of other plants because it forms a physical barrier to the soil.  And the limited sunlight on the floor of both forests is surely a factor in suppressing the development of an understory.  When an understory persists through the limiting factors of low light and heavy leaf mulch, there are obviously mitigating factors such as more moisture, better soil, and other resources that understory plants need.  Furthermore, some species of native plants seem to be suited to conditions in the eucalyptus forest.

The leaves of eucalyptus contain chemicals–as do the leaves of all plants– but if they do not prevent the growth of an understory or they are not any more likely to suppress the growth of competing plants than chemicals in native tree species, this is not a legitimate argument against eucalyptus.  Cal-IPC has not provided any scientific justification for indicting eucalyptus based on its allelopathic properties.


(1)    Kam Watson, “The Effect of Eucalyptus and Oak Leaf Extracts on California Native Plants,” 2000.

(1)    R.G. Florence, Ecology and Silviculture of the Eucalypt Forest, CSIRO, 1992?, pgs 71 & 103

Scientists critique UCSF’s plans for Mount Sutro and native plant advocates react

Nature is considered one of the top journals in science globally.  So, we were very excited about the article they published in their September 2013 edition about Mount Sutro. (1) The article starts with every bogus claim UCSF makes to justify the destruction of the forest, i.e., that it is flammable, that it is diseased, that it will store more carbon when most of it is destroyed.  We have responded to those claims many times on Million Trees, so we won’t repeat those arguments here.  (We have provided links to our articles about each of these issues, so you can read them if you wish by clicking on each issue.)

Sutro forest before recent tree removals.  Courtesy Save Sutro
Sutro forest before recent tree removals. Courtesy Save Sutro

After faithfully repeating UCSF’s storyline, Nature turns to the opposite side of this debate, starting with the welcome introduction of critics of the Sutro project as “environmentalists and ecologists” for whom “a hardline devotion to preserving native ecosystems is giving way to a more post-modern idea of what constitutes a natural landscape.”  The author of the Nature article interviewed scientists who agree with this new perspective:

  • “’Mount Sutro is part of a larger story,’ says Richard Hobbs, an ecolo­gist at the University of Western Australia in Crawley. ‘What some people see as a weed-filled blot on the landscape, others see as something extremely valuable, worthy of managing in its own right. People are increasingly moving away from the belief that a native ecosystem is always best….There is a lot of tension about how to deal with situations like these right now,’ he says. ‘With so much non-native habitat, the old views — that everything must be natural — no longer apply.’”
  • “In the early 1990s, Patricia Kennedy of Oregon State University in Corvallis helped to develop management guidelines for northern goshawks. She found that the raptors do not strictly need old-growth forests; land used for timber harvesting can work, too. She says that, at the time, accept­ing the idea felt like a move to the ‘dark side’. ‘The whole culture in wildlife biology and conservation circles has been that you can’t approximate Mother Nature,’ she says.  But those ideas are changing today, with altered ecosystems such as Mount Sutro’s providing a case in point.”
  • Joe Mascaro, an ecologist at Stanford University in California [2] who has been publicly critical of UCSF’s management plans, says that Mount Sutro has long since given way to a completely new ecosystem. ‘Restoring it to an original state would be borderline impossible, so why stop the succession that is already in place?’”
  • “Resistance to such a heretical idea runs deep among ecologists, but growing num­bers are embracing altered ecosystems in the name of pragmatism. ‘You can reach more win–win situations if you don’t insist on purity,’ says Katharine Suding, an ecologist at the University of Califor­nia, Berkeley, who specializes in restoring human-affected areas. ‘It doesn’t have to be a natural versus non-natural dichotomy.’”
Same section of Sutro forest after tree and understory removal at the end of August 2013.  Courtesy Save Sutro
Same section of Sutro forest after tree and understory removal at the end of August 2013. Courtesy Save Sutro

The reaction of native plant advocates

As pleased as we were to hear from the international scientific community, we didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the article until we read the reaction of native plant advocates in Jake Sigg’s Nature News:

“On Sep 15, 2013, at 4:13 PM, Peter Brastow wrote (re NYT editorial on Mt Sutro):
‘Yes, and recall that the NYT article linked to an awful piece in Nature. I see this as PhD Academicians liking the sound of their own voice, and certain members of the media who, likewise, don’t actually know anything about on-the-ground land management. To boot, their arguments support continued environmental destruction around the world, whether for palm plantations, bio-fuel production, cattle grazing, suburban development, you name it. Do you think these same people advocate letting the Amazon rainforest be clearcut from end to end?’” 
(Jake Sigg’s Nature News, September 21, 2013)

It seems that native plant advocates disliked the Nature article as much as we liked it. This comment from a prominent native plant advocate in San Francisco is more evidence of the growing gap between restorationists and the scientists of invasion biology who spawned the native plant movement.  We have noted before the inevitable tension between theoretical science and its practical application and in the case of ecological restoration in the Bay Area, it is becoming more and more distant from its scientific underpinnings.

What is San Francisco’s Biodiversity Program?

You might think that the loss of scientific support for the projects in the Bay Area which are attempting to convert non-native to native landscapes would weaken the local native plant movement.  You would be mistaken.  Peter Brastow, the author of this comment, is employed by the City of San Francisco as the Director of Biodiversity in the Department of the Environment.  The creation of this program and the selection of Mr. Brastow as its first director suggest official endorsement of these projects and imply their expansion beyond their present footprint.  This is the mission of San Francisco’s Biodiversity Program according to the Department of Environment’s website:

“The mission of the Biodiversity Program is to conserve the biodiversity, habitats and ecological integrity of San Francisco’s natural environment, toward a comprehensive watershed- and ecosystem-based natural resources management, stewardship and education program.

Our approach is to advance collaboration and coordination for biodiversity policy development and interagency conservation planning and management.

San Francisco’s indigenous biodiversity exists among diverse open lands and habitats in a complex urban geography of parklands, natural areas, urban forests, community gardens and backyards. The scope of the program includes protection of all of the City’s biological diversity and natural lands, and for strategic integration of nature conservation best practices into planning, implementation and education for the built environment.

We hope to raise the bar on integrating considerations for nature and biodiversity into the operations of every City Department as well as into every aspect of city life, including making significant increases in public and City employee awareness.”

Our interpretation of this vague, abstract description is that the goal of San Francisco’s Biodiversity Program is to extend the native plant restorations of the Recreation and Park Department’s Natural Areas Program to all city departments and all city-owned open space, perhaps even to your backyard.

Since we think the Natural Areas Program has been a miserable failure, with respect to successfully converting naturalized non-native landscapes to native plant gardens, we have serious doubts about expanding the program to the entire city.  And since the Natural Areas Program is using a great deal of pesticide, destroying many healthy trees, and plans to destroy thousands more, we are not enthusiastic about subjecting more public land to such damage.

We are equally alarmed by the dismissal of scientists by the Director of Biodiversity, Peter Brastow, as people who like to hear themselves talk.  This suggests that the Director of Biodiversity isn’t listening to the rapidly changing science of invasion biology.  You might wonder what Peter Brastow’s qualifications are to enable him to dismiss academic scientists as a resource for the application of invasion biology to native plant restorations.  You can visit his resume on the internet to satisfy that curiosity.


For the record, we are not supporters of the “environmental destruction” of which Mr. Brastow accuses the scientists who are quoted in the Nature article.  We do not “advocate letting the Amazon rainforest be clearcut from end to end,” as Mr. Brastow claims.  We are confident that no one else with whom we collaborate does so either.  The only clearcutting we have witnessed first-hand was done in response to the demands of native plant advocates; these projects have already destroyed 18,000 non-native trees in the East Bay hills and are determined to clearcut about 80,000 more.  This looks like a classic case of “pot-calls-kettle-black.”


(1)    Danielle Venton, “Forest management plans in a tangle,” Nature, September 2013, Vol. 501

(2)    When Mr. Mascaro was interviewed, he was at the Carnegie Institute of Research in Stanford, California.

Wind and Trees

The public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for UCSF’s plans to destroy 90% of the forest and its understory on 46 acres of the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve ended on March 19, 2013.  We studied that document carefully to evaluate its accuracy and form our own opinion of the impact this project will have on the environment.  Because Mount Sutro is a very windy environment, we paid particular attention to the influence of the wind for the consequences of UCSF’s proposed plans to destroy most of the forest.  In the process, we learned something about the interaction between wind and trees that we would like to share with our readers.

The wind on Mount Sutro

Mount Sutro is a 900+ foot hill that is directly exposed to the wind from the west, coming off the ocean.  Steep slopes accelerate the wind as it moves uphill.  On the leeward side of a steep hill the wind breaks into turbulent gusts.  This is an oversimplification of the movement of wind over a hill because in a complex topography such as Mount Sutro, the movement of the wind is as complex as the topography.  For example, Mount Sutro is penetrated by a number of steep canyons that funnel the wind as it moves uphill.   

Anyone who has visited the UCSF campus on the top of the hill knows that it is a cold, miserable, windy place much of time.  But if you walk in the dense forest on Mount Sutro, you are often unaware of the wind because the trees are shielding you from the wind. 

UCSF plans to destroy its windbreak by reducing the density of the forest from 740 per trees acre to only about 15-50 trees per acre.  The campus and the neighborhoods on the leeward side of Mount Sutro are going to be subjected to a great deal more wind.  They will also experience more fog which is now being “caught” by the tall trees and condensed as moisture to the forest floor.  That fog is now going to flow freely from the ocean to the neighborhoods on the leeward side of Mount Sutro.

The consequences for the few trees that remain

UCSF would like the public to believe that it doesn’t intend to destroy the entire forest.  However, that is the likely consequence of destroying 90% of the trees on 46 acres because trees develop their defenses against the wind in a specific environment with a specific amount of wind and they often fail when they are exposed to more wind than they are adapted to.

Wndthrow caused by adjacent clearcut, Britain.  Creative Commons
Wndthrow caused by adjacent clearcut, Britain. Creative Commons

UCSF’s own written plans for this project acknowledge that thinning the forest will increase the likelihood of the remaining trees failing:  “Individual trees that suddenly become more exposed to high winds are also more likely to fall.  For this reason, any thinning of the forest that is considered must not be so extensive that it will subject remaining trees to increased windfall.”  (1, page 15) Ignoring its own advice, UCSF proposes to destroy over 90% of the trees on 46 acres of the reserve.

The DEIR also acknowledges that the trees remaining after the forest is thinned will be vulnerable to windthrow for some unknown period of time during which they adjust to the changed environment.  The DEIR suggests that it is possible to mitigate for this potential for windthrow by monitoring the remaining trees to identify potential hazards.  In other words, the DEIR claims that it is possible to accurately identify trees that might fall before they fall. 

This is a fiction.  If it were indeed possible to accurately predict that a tree will fall, we wouldn’t read reports of thousands of trees falling all over the country every year.  Over 5,400 tree failures were reported to the University of California’s “California Tree Failure Report Program” in 2012.  Since reporting is voluntary, we assume that is an underestimate of all tree failures in California in 2012.  (Oaks (Quercus) were the most frequently reported genus to have failed in 2012:  22.7% of 5,415 reported tree failures were oaks.   Failures of eucalyptus were nearly half that (11.90%).)  

Any reputable arborist will tell you that evaluation of trees for potential hazards is an art, not a science.  That is, it is a subjective judgment and this is reflected in the wide numerical range used to rate trees for potential hazards.  When an arborist agrees to a contract to conduct such an evaluation, he/she usually does so with a liability caveat, making it clear that he/she cannot accept legal responsibility for trees that fail which haven’t been identified as hazardous by their evaluation. 

For these reasons, the mitigation offered by the DEIR looks like a trap.  If the evaluation is applied conservatively, the ultimate destruction of the entire forest seems likely.  In other words, the few trees that remain will be declared hazardous and destroyed.  Since those who demand this project have made it perfectly clear that they want the entire forest destroyed, that seems the likely scenario.  If, on the other hand, the evaluation is not applied conservatively, unpredicted tree failures are likely.  In either case, the ultimate outcome is a forest with fewer trees than projected by the DEIR. 

In a consultation with Professor Joseph McBride of UC Berkeley, we were provided with two specific examples to illustrate this trap.  Professor McBride evaluated two extreme windthrow events in the San Francisco Presidio and Sea Ranch.  This study is cited by the Sutro DEIR. (2)  Professor McBride told us that of the 6,000 trees that failed in the Presidio in an extreme weather event in 1993, most would not have been identified in advance as being vulnerable to windthrow.  Healthy, structurally sound trees fail in extreme weather events.  Conversely Professor McBride told us of an evaluation of all trees on the Berkeley campus in 1976 that judged about 3% of the trees as hazardous for which removal was recommended.  Shortly after the evaluation was conducted, UC went through a period of budgetary constraints (much like the one UC is having presently) which prevented the removal of the trees judged to be hazardous.  Over 35 years later, about 80% of those trees are still standing.  In other words, trees judged healthy by professional arborists sometimes fail and trees judged hazardous often do not fail. 

On April 7, 2013, the Bay Area experienced high winds that demonstrated both our windy environment and the consequences for our trees.  Winds of 75 miles per hour were recorded in San Francisco.  At the San Francisco airport, on the eastern (leeward) side of the City, winds of 35 miles per hour or more were recorded for 21 consecutive hours, an unusually sustained high wind.  Both the strength of the wind and its duration caused many trees to fail.  In San Francisco, 75 fallen trees were reported to the Department of Public Works.  Here’s a brief article in the San Francisco Chronicle about this destructive wind, including photos of some of the many trees that fell.

 How wind affects the health of trees

The DEIR would like the public to believe that the thinned forest will be capable of growing sufficiently to compensate for the loss of the existing capability to sequester carbon and recoup the loss of much of the existing stored carbon because the remaining trees will be released from competition.  One of the reasons why this is wishful thinking is that the trees that remain will be subjected to a great deal more wind and that wind is going to reduce the trees’ ability to grow:

“As the magnitude of the stress (windspeed) increases, so do the resulting strains, resulting in a cascade of physiological strain responses.  The physiological responses range from rapid changes in transpiration and photosynthesis at the foliar level, to reduced translocation, callose formation and ethylene production in the phloem and cambial zone.  Long-term developmental and structural changes occur in canopy architecture and biomechnical properties of the xylem. “(3)

This same article explains that the canopy of a tree that is subjected to a great deal of wind tends to be narrower than one subjected to less wind and its leaves are smaller, which is one of the reasons why photosynthesis and transpiration are suppressed in a windy environment.

We turn to Joe McBride’s wind study of the Presidio (4) for a specific, local example that illustrates these general principles.  This is what Professor McBride observed at the Presidio: 

“Wind at the Presidio affects tree growth, form, and mortality.  Exposure to winds in excess of 5 mph usually results in the closure of the stomata to prevent the desiccation of the foliage (Kozlowski and Palhardy, 1997) Photosynthesis is thereby stopped during periods of moderate to high wind exposure resulting in a reduction in tree growth…Eucalyptus showed the greatest reduction in growth with trees at the windward edge being only 46 percent as tall as trees on the leeward side.” (4, page 6)

The plans to destroy 90% of the trees on 46 acres of Mount Sutro will subject the few trees that remain to a great deal more wind.  The growth of the few trees that remain will be significantly retarded by the wind.  The claim of the DEIR that those trees will grow significantly larger when released from competition from their neighbors is fallacious because it does not take into account that the trees will be subjected to significantly more wind.

 Why, oh why?

We cannot imagine why UCSF wants to destroy most of its forest.  These are a few of the most mysterious questions that we cannot answer:

  • Why does UCSF want to subject its students, its patients, and its staff to more wind?  Why does it want to subject its neighbors to more wind and fog? 
  • Does UCSF really believe that destroying 90% of the forest on 46 acres of the Sutro Reserve will not result in the destruction of the entire forest? 
  • Does UCSF really believe that the few trees that remain will grow so large and so fast as to compensate for the loss of the ability of the forest to sequester carbon?

We are speaking of a world-class scientific institution.  Could it really be so ignorant?  Or is there some ulterior motive that is not visible to us?  Conspiracy theories abound in the public comments that have been submitted.  We cannot verify any of those theories, so we won’t repeat them.  We actually prefer to believe the latter explanation, because the thought of such an important scientific institution being so ignorant of scientific facts is too painful to contemplate.


(1)    “Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve Management Plan,” EDAW (consultant to UCSF), 2001

(2)    McBride and Leffingwell, “Assessing windthrow potential in urban forests of coastal California,” Society for American Forests Newsletter, 2006

(3)    F. W. Telewski, “Wind induced physiological and development responses in trees,” in Wind and Trees, edited by MP Coutts and J Grace, Cambridge University Press, 1995

(4)    Joe R. McBride, “Presidio of San Francisco, Wind Study, First Phase,”  circa 2002

San Franciscans come to the defense of the Sutro Forest

Mount Sutro Forest
Mount Sutro Forest

The San Francisco Chronicle recently published an op-ed by Joe Mascaro about the Sutro Forest (available here). He is a professional ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science who studies the ecological functions of forests (his research is described here). He is also a San Franciscan and a fan of the Sutro Forest. He tells us in his op-ed that the Sutro Forest is a unique, “novel” forest that is thriving and that destroying it will increase the risk of wildfire, contrary to the claims of UCSF.

As we approach the March 19, 2013 deadline for submitting public comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for UCSF’s proposed plan to destroy 90% of the forest and its understory on 75% of the 61 acres of the Mount Sutro Reserve, we appeal to our readers to take a few minutes in their busy day to write your own comment (see below for details of where to send comments).

About 200 people came to the community meeting at UCSF last night.  Nearly 60 people spoke; the overwhelming majority spoke in opposition to UCSF’s proposed plans to destroy most of the forest.  Everyone spoke respectfully but with passion about what this forest means to the community.  Many spoke about the loss of trees and habitat where similar projects already have been implemented by the Natural Areas Program and the GGNRA.

Over 1,700 people have signed the petition to save the Sutro Forest. If you haven’t signed yet, please do so here. We’re going to quote a few of the astute and well-informed comments that people have written on the petition in the hope that it will inspire you to write your own comment. (Grammatical edits only.)

Comment #1575:

“Among many other reasons not to hurt this forest- it is healing to people in need of healing at the UCSF hospital. The sight of it sustained me through a difficult labor during which I gazed on it for 13 hours. It is a vibrant, healthy, and sacred forest, and the people who love it will not stand by idly and quietly if it is in harms way”

Scientific studies corroborate this patient’s personal experience. Here is a report of these studies.

Comment #1528:

“Please nooooo!!! do not destroy the habitat for hundreds of creatures. WHY the destruction FOR NOTHING!!! I live in the neighborhood and I am sick and tired to see the city and UCSF cutting down trees and not replacing them.. but only with shrubs and small plants”

This is another San Franciscan who has noticed that the UCSF project is one of many in San Francisco which is destroying trees in order to return the landscape to native grassland and scrub.

Comment #1519:

“The reasons for tree removal are inaccurate. The effort is a waste of resources. The forest is healthy and most importantly serves the needs of the population of the city. UC has indicated its willingness to destroy trees for its own gain, but what the people of SF need is the unique ecosystem that provides wind relief, beauty, and comfort. Native plant restoration is a myopic, militant effort that does not take into consideration the needs of the people who live in SF. This is another effort to waste and destroy for misconceived ideals.”

This San Franciscan understands that the Sutro forest is performing important ecological functions.

Comment #1518:

“The trees in Sutro forest provide immense value to the neighborhood and the city in which we live. It is a wind break, it is a visual stimulus, it is a wonderful place to walk, it is home to a large number of hummingbirds, it isolates a busy hospital from the neighborhood and it provides a tremendous source of ground water to neighboring houses. Save the forest.”

This Sutro neighbor understands that the loss of this forest will harm both the neighborhood and the animals that live in the forest.

Comment #1471:

“Destroying 90% of the trees will destroy the forest – its beauty, its Cloud Forest aspect, and its habitat value. The trees, which sequester tons of carbon, will no longer do so, and instead the dead chipped trees will release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE THESE TREES!”

This commenter understands that the forest is storing carbon which will be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when the trees are destroyed. Carbon dioxide is the predominant greenhouse gas which is causing climate change.

Comment #1277:

“For environmental reasons please do not cut the forest of Mount Sutro. Risk of landslides (the old forest has intertwined and intergrafted roots that function like a living geo-textile and hold up the mountain, while the exposed rock on Twin Peaks has a rock-slide every year or two); Pesticide drift into our neighborhood, affecting us and our pets (right now, Sutro Forest may be the only pesticide-free wildland in the city; the Natural Areas Program, which controls most of it, uses pesticides regularly) Increased noise (the vegetation – the leaves of the trees and the shrubs in the understory are like soft fabrics absorbing sound) Changes in air quality (trees reduce pollution by trapping particle on their leaves until they’re washed down) Environmental impact – (eucalyptus is the best tree species for sequestering carbon because it grows fast, large, is long-lived, and has dense wood; but felled and mulched trees release this carbon right back into the atmosphere).”

This San Franciscan is aware of the pesticides being used by the Recreation and Park Department’s so-called “Natural Areas Program.” UCSF’s proposed project will use pesticides to prevent the resprouting of the trees that they destroy. Pesticides used by native plant “restorations” are described here. She also understands that trees stabilize steep slopes and reduce air pollution.

Here’s what you can do to help save the Sutro Forest:

• Sign the petition to save the forest. Available here.

• Submit a written public comment by 5 PM, March 19, 2013 to UCSF Environmental Coordinator Diane Wong at EIR@planning.ucsf.edu or mail to UCSF Campus Planning, Box 0286, San Francisco, CA 94143-0286. Include your full name and address.

• Write to the Board of Regents to ask why a public medical institution is engaging in such a controversial, expensive, and environmentally destructive act. Address: Office of the Secretary and Chief of Staff to the Regents,
1111 Franklin St., 12th Floor, Oakland, CA 94607
 Fax: (510) 987-9224

• Subscribe to the website SaveSutro.com for ongoing information and analysis.

Message to UCSF: Do the math!!

UCSF has sent an email to its neighbors about its plans for the Sutro forest in which they say, “Contrary to rumors being circulated, there is no plan to cut down 30,000 trees in the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, and it is unfortunate that this misinformation continues to spread.”

Our response is, Do the math!!

The Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) claims that the thinned forest will have 62 trees per acre. (DEIR Appendix F) The DEIR arrives at this figure by assuming that each tree will occupy a circle with a radius of 15’. In fact, it is not possible to pack circles into another geometric space, whether it is a bigger circle, a rectangle or a square without wasting space. Therefore, this calculation arrives at a bogus answer which is larger than is physically possible.

We have calculated the number of trees remaining in the thinned forest based on the number of squares in an acre that are 30’ X 30’. Such calculations of tree density are found in books regarding arboriculture, which corroborates that we are using a standard calculation used by the timber industry and the DEIR is not. (1)


43560/900 = trees per acre if 30 feet apart (the proposed plan)


43560/3600 = trees per acre if 60 feet apart (the proposed plan)


Total number of trees existing now on 61 acres (according to UCSF)


46 acres X 740 trees/acre = Number of trees existing in project area


44 acres X 48 trees/acre = thinned forest with 30’ spacing


2 acres (Demo Area #4) X 12 trees/acre = thinned forest with 60’ spacing


Existing Trees – Thinned Forest = Trees Removed in Project Area


Trees Removed/Existing Trees in total forest = Percent of Trees Removed in Total Forest

If UCSF wishes to reduce the number of trees that will be removed by the proposed plan, it can do so by reducing the spacing between the trees or the number of acres to be “thinned.” All other numbers used to arrive at an estimated number of tree removals are straight-forward mathematical calculations based on the information provided by UCSF.

UCSF would be wise to read the DEIR for its project, which says, “Under full-implementation or worst-case implementation of management activities under the proposed project, approximately 60% of all existing trees, including large and small trees, could be removed.” UCSF reports that there are 45,000 trees in the Mount Sutro Reserve presently. Sixty-percent of 45,000 is 27,000 trees. We think UCSF’s estimate of tree removals is just a few thousand trees less than what is actually planned. What are we quibbling about?

Once again, we invite UCSF to revise its proposed project to reduce the number of trees that will be removed.

(1) Ecology and Silviculture of Eucalypt Forests, R.G. Florence, CSIRO, Australia