Issues: Table of Contents
Those of us who live in Claremont Canyon and surrounding areas know that this is a spectacular location for a residence, and one of the best areas in the hills to raise a family. We are fortunate to be in this natural setting close to parks and open spaces with all of the urban conveniences nearby.
Natural cycles are a fact of life in the East Bay Hills, so residents must quickly learn that homeowner preparation or lack of preparation can be directly related to the amount and extent of damage that both natural and human aided events can cause. Our weather is usually comfortable and mild with only a few months of rain and winter weather extremes. However, natural cycles of extreme fire-weather occur regularly in the late summer and fall when hot, dry, blustery winds rush in from the east. These winds are called "Diablo Winds", and they can be very dangerous if a fire were to ignite at such a time. We must pay attention to these conditions and be ready to respond appropriately and sometimes quickly because it will be impossible to predict the exact location, source, and timing of an ignition that can transform high winds into a raging wildfire.
Predictions about what might happen in the way of weather extremes, climate change, and wildfire during this century should be included in neighborhood and agency discussions to ensure appropriate preparation for wildfire and appropriate planning for wise management of natural resources. As an example, the events of the past hundred years suggest that in this century; there are likely to be three Diablo wind mega-fires, seven "normal" Diablo wind fires, possibly as many as 150 "normal" west wind fires, hundreds of small fires that are quickly controlled, four El Nino events, four extended freezes, and four drought cycles that will all impact wildland vegetation and residential areas. Fortunately, there are reasonable steps that can be taken to be safe and to protect one's property with good family emergency planning, appropriate home and property preparation, and defensible space landscape maintenance.
Javier Trelles, and Patrick J. Pagni, both distinguished UC Berkeley professors with funding from a FEMA grant, analyzed the role of early "Diablo" winds and burning embers during the first hour of the 1991 rapid fire spread. They also analyzed and modeled the very different spread rates from fire generated winds during the fire's next nine-hours. In their report, they described the Sunday morning fire start and the environmental conditions at the start as follows:
"On October 20, at 6:00 a.m., the normal weather pattern was interrupted as winds in excess on 10/ms arose from N 35 degrees E and the relative humidity dropped below 10%. This strong, dry convective current began to dramatically lower the moisture level of the previously soaked burn area of the Saturday fire. The ambient temperature climbed to 90 degrees. The few embers that remained buried overnight were by 10:45 a.m. spotting to new areas of dry fuel. Between 11:15 and 11:30 a.m., extremely rapid fire spread in windward direction overwhelmed fire crews called in to help. The initial brand material came primarily from Monterey pine, Pinus radiata. About 650 meters from the fire origin, the fire engaged a 35-meter high stand of Eucalyptus globules that quickly became an inferno releasing copious brands. Once structures became involved, the shakes and shingles they liberated further exacerbated the flaming brand problem."
Of the 11,055 people living in the 1,500 acre fire area, 25 were killed, 150 injured, and most residents were left homeless. The average price of the 3,354 single-family dwellings destroyed was $350,000 for a total cost of $1,200,000,000. Four hundred forty-six apartment units were destroyed. In addition, 2,000 automobiles were destroyed. 10,000 people were evacuated from the area, the Red Cross answered 3,000 inquiries from concerned family members, and non-profit groups served 100,000 meals. 4,407 families registered for assistance, 1,221 temporary housing grants were issued, 842 individual family grants were issued, and 3,921 Small Business Administration loan applications were filed. The total estimated cost of the fire was more than 1.5 billion dollars.
Wildland/urban interface fires are often complex and fast moving fires that have multiple causes. The Hills Emergency Forum and the Park District have often used the following narrative to describe the East Bay Hills wildfire problem.
" •Residential developments in the Hills have occurred, over the past 70 years, in areas at risk from major Diablo wind-driven wildfires.
•Major increases in flammable vegetation, over the past 70 years, have significantly increased the wildfire risk. Steep hillsides have been converted from grazed grasslands to brush with hillside and ridge top homes, surrounded with flammable vegetation, often under or adjacent to groves of unmaintained pine or eucalyptus.
•Neighborhoods currently exist with large numbers of homes with wood shingle roofs, wood siding and decks, and excessive levels of flammable vegetation on the lot. Some homes have been placed in locations that are indefensible today, given the wildfire characteristics of unmanaged vegetation on steep hillside slopes.
•Narrow roads, overhead power lines, variable water pressure and volume at Hill fire hydrants all make fire fighting difficult under the best of conditions in the Hills, and impossible under the worst of conditions.
•Un-maintained eucalyptus and pine groves, on both private and public lands, represent a serious crown fire and spotting threat to adjacent residential areas.
•Diablo wind fires under the worst conditions of high wind speed, low humidity, and high temperature, move so quickly that positioning fire crews and obtaining air support for rapid containment and control may not be possible given current fuel levels.
•Urban fire departments may be called upon to fight a rapidly expanding East Bay Hills Diablo wind fire once every 10, 20 or 40 years, and therefore cannot have the same level of experience, resources, and equipment equivalent to their more traditional structural fire fighting mission. "
Public memory about what existed in the 1991 fire area fades quickly after dead trees and destroyed homes are demolished and building sites are prepared for new home construction. The first photo shows the area where the fire started, and the next four show examples of what the vegetation and structures looked like the week after the fire.
There has not been an effort to scapegoat this or any other tree species for their role in the 1991 fire. But, we should not forget what burned and the acreages that were involved in the 1,500-acre wildfire that are summarized below. (Source: Comparison of Fuel Load, Structural Characteristics and Infrastructure Before and After the Oakland Hills "Tunnel Fire". USDA forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-158. 1995)
40% of the acres involved 3,355 structures, 21% of the acres involved Eucalyptus trees, 18% of the acres involved Northern coast scrub, 9% of the acres involved Monterey pine 5% of the acres involved Coastal scrub, grassland mosaic 3% of the acres involved Coast live oak & coastal scrub mosaic, 3% of the acres involved highways, .5% of the acres involved Grassland and .4% of the acres involved Monterey pine and coastal scrub mosaic.
After the acreage attributable to structures, eucalyptus trees occupied the largest percentage of acreage involved in the fire. Vegetation was involved in 57% of the acres throughout the fire area and structures 40% of the acres. This was a classic wildland/urban interface fire that did its damage in one terrible afternoon. Wildfire does not usually distinguish between plants and houses, so both were fuel during the fire.
The FEMA report about the 1991 fire, produced in its immediate aftermath said:
"Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine have been identified as fire hazards and their spread should be controlled... It should be stressed that these target species are not the only vegetation threat existing in this area. Acres of coyote brush, scotch and French broom, and the vast inventory of ornamental shrubs that are now thirty to forty years old all constitute a significant fire hazard."
The more complete and definitive 1991 fire report is titled The East Bay Hills Oakland- Berkeley Fire that was investigated by J. Gordon Outlay. His report was conducted under contract to the United States Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency. The following quotes are taken from this report.
"Fire has been a part of the history of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills area throughout its history. As with many other marine climates, fuel moistures are such that during most periods, fires do not cause dramatic damage but rather help maintain a balance of fuel types and reduce fuel loads. The native flora and fauna had adapted correspondingly with the natural occurrence of fire in the area.
In modem times, the natural fire pattern in the area has been substantially changed. Fire suppression has reduced the natural cycle of fires, which normally would have occurred in the area. Without prescribed burning or some other type of fuel reduction, the native vegetation has caused an increased fuel load through the area.
Additionally, the introduction of vegetative species that are not native to the area has dramatically impacted fuel loading. This is particularly true of the introduction of eucalyptus. Fuel accumulations in some areas under eucalyptus plantations have been estimated between 30 and 40 tons per acre. Monterey Pine was also introduced into the area and contributed significantly to the fuel loading.
Eucalyptus was first introduced to the East Bay Hills with extensive planting in the early 1900s. The eucalyptus has a tremendous production of both leaf and bark litter, which is not readily consumed or broken down in the normal decomposition process and leads to the presence of high volumes of fuel.
Additionally, eucalyptus is susceptible to freeze damage, as occurred in 1972, when large numbers of eucalyptus were killed due to an extended period of below freezing temperatures, and again in December of 1990. The dead trees and limbs added a significant amount of dry fuel in the area. Also, eucalyptus sprouts back from the stump and this sprouting after freezing or after logging operations have also increased fuels in some areas.
Between 1986 and 1991 most of California experienced drought conditions. This situation was recognized as creating more and more critical fire risk conditions each year. The unprecedented drought was accompanied by an unusual period of freezing weather, in December of 1990, which killed massive quantities of the lighter brush and eucalyptus.
Dead fuel accumulated on the ground in many areas and combined with dropped pine needles and other natural debris to create a highly combustible blanket. Due to the fiscal cutbacks, governmental programs to thin these fuels and create fuel breaks were severely curtailed, so the fuel load was much greater than normal by the second half of 1991. In addition, no measurable rainfall was recorded during the summer and early fall of 1991.
Most of the eucalyptus and pine groves in the hills are today's remnants of the tree planting efforts of two Oakland businessmen between 1895 and 1913. They planted the hills with pine, eucalyptus, and cypress for future residential developments and blue gum eucalyptus for hardwood lumber production. Both enterprises would not be repeatable today, and have created increasingly significant environmental and cost impacts, as trees become decadent and unsafe, that today's residents and agencies must increasingly address. We use the common term of "non-native" as the appropriate description for blue gum and red gum eucalyptus trees from Australia, and for describing pines and cypress trees from the coastal regions of central California.
Since dense eucalyptus and pine groves on public lands in claremont canyon are a hazard, what are the options?
Virtually every professional involved with fire suppression, wildland management or the study of fire science/fire ecology who has studied Claremont Canyon cites the high fuel load that eucalyptus and pine trees contribute to the Canyon and the surrounding area. At this point there is universal agreement among fire professionals that something needs to be done.
Opponents to the removal of highly invasive, flammable, non-native species such as eucalyptus and acacia trees are misleading the public on this score by inappropriately using clear cutting as a term that arouses one's worst fears. Clear cutting is a forest logging method in which all trees are removed to form a new stand of timber. Clear cutting has never been done in Claremont Canyon and there are no plans to ever do so.
The University and Park District approach has been to remove eucalyptus and leave native oaks, bays, and other native vegetation and is correctly called selective logging for forest conversion purposes to improve wildfire safety.
Nineteen percent of the existing vegetation in the East Bay Hills is non-native. Most of today's wildland vegetation (by counting numbers of species represented in that vegetation) is composed of "truly native" species or similar and is relatively fire safe. However, most of the plant communities, in their current locations and size, are relatively young and will continue to change through stages of succession, development and rebirth during the next 200-years. This 19% of East Bay Hill vegetation includes mostly non-native eucalyptus and pine that produce dramatic flames that are less controllable, and can throw embers long distances into residential areas.
There should be no confusion about the type of vegetation that is possible and desirable today when converting from higher-risk plant communities to lower-risk plant communities that were identified in the 1995 Hills Emergency Forum Vegetation Dataset. Our native and similar plant communities have evolved here, and can be re-established to grow well with few maintenance requirements other than invasive weed control.
Native and Similar Plant Communities (mostly natives by species count) 4,100
Oak/Bay Forest- Mixed 3,847
Grassland (mostly areas that are grazed) 3,309
Dry North Coastal Shrubland 1,418
Redwood Forest 918
Successional Shrubland 855
Oak/Bay Woodland- Mixed 332
Wet North Coastal Shrubland 79 Chaparral- Mixed 71
Riparian Forest 10
Oak Savannah 14,940
Subtotal (81% of Oakland/Berkeley Hill wildland vegetation)
The fire risks attributed to individual species are very real, and some species do support more intense fire behavior than others. Our native and similar plants listed above are generally below 40' in height (except for comparatively safe native redwoods), and are less prone to unmanageable fire behavior. Non-native eucalyptus and pine groves can exceed 120' in height and can be prone to dramatic fire behavior. When wind drive wildfire reaches their crown, flames above 150' can be expected with burning embers blowing downwind well beyond one half mile. Non-native eucalyptus and pine are some of the most dense and flammable plant communities in the hills. Un-maintained pine groves are also extremely flammable with deep needle duff on the ground and dense pine seedling growth within and around the grove. We also know that major freezes (1922, 1931, 1949, 1972, and 1991) have killed or damaged eucalyptus trees, and that many fires have killed pine trees. We also anticipate that global warming will result in further extremes in weather that will affect plant species and make the 21st century even more risky.
The University has used eucalyptus chips, from logs and branches run through a chipper, as a ground mulch to keep logging trucks off our pubic roads if logs and chips were otherwise hauled to off site locations. A secondary benefit is to retain all or most of the plant biomass on site as a mulch to control weed invasion. Some feel the chips that are spread over a eucalyptus or pine tree conversion area are a fire hazard, but no credible evidence has ever been offered to prove that the chips are anywhere near the fire hazard of the standing dense trees. Fire professionals agree that wood chips, which retain extensive moisture, are unable to carry a fast moving flame front, although they could smolder and require additional "mop-up" work to extinguish. There has never been a fire in one of the UC projects where chips have been used during the past seven years.
The University has chipped during several Claremont Canyon projects including its most recent mid-canyon project in 2006/2007. The remaining native vegetation in mid-canyon between Claremont Canyon Avenue and Grizzly Peak Boulevard is healthy and doing well now that the dominating eucalyptus cover has been removed. The chipped areas vary in depth, but in this part of the canyon chips are now less than eight inches in depth except at a few confined chipping areas that now form open meadows that surrounding vegetation that will soon occupy. The University's Claremont Canyon phased projects (2001-2007) are one of the most successful eucalyptus conversion efforts for restoring native vegetation while reducing fire-hazards in the East Bay Hills.
Renowned experts including Dr. Jon Keeley, who spoke at the 2007 annual meeting of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, have made it clear that wholesale reduction of fuel load in remote open space areas does not mitigate the risk of a Diablo Wind-driven fire.
Dr. Keeley's concluding statement in his paper, Fire history of the San Francisco East Bay region and implications for landscape patterns, published after the Claremont Canyon Conservancy meeting, contained the following closing paragraph.
"Under these severe fire weather conditions, fire spread is extremely rapid and the area has a history of devastating fires. These, however, have all been relatively small fires that involved fuels at the wildland-urban interface. Fuels far removed from this interface zone played very little role in these conflagrations. Thus, it would seem the most cost-effective approach to fire hazard reduction should be focused at the interface zone and here the problem is often as much due to exotic fuels as it is to natural successional processes."
Dr. Keeley has published extensively on the futility of using prescribed fire to reduce the fuel load in expansive Southern California shrublands where much of his research has been focused, and recommends that fuel management occur at the residential interface. Also, East Bay fires are small compared to larger 100,000 acre fires in Southern California and elsewhere, but have destroyed equally large numbers of homes in our "smaller" under 2,000 acre fires.
The conclusions of Dr. Jon Keeley and the conclusions of every recognized fire expert who has reviewed the East Bay Hill fire problem agree that climate risks and fuel risks need to be evaluated and addressed together.
The following statements about climate and fuel risks are taken from sections of the Forest Encyclopedia Network.
"Climate fire risks are directly related to wind speed that has one of the greatest effects on fire intensity and rates of spread. As wind blows across a fire, it pushes the flame forward and closer to the unburned fuel in front of the fire. This increases convection and radiation, which dry the fuel and increase its combustibility. In general, the higher the wind speed, the further the flame leans and the faster it dries the fuels, increasing both fire intensity and rate of spread. Wind also adds oxygen to the existing fire, further increasing combustion rates in the flaming zone."
"There is a direct relationship between fire line intensity and wind speed. This relationship has also been quantified in fire behavior prediction models. Wind also influences the direction of spread and can carry sparks and firebrands downwind of fires, greatly increasing spread rates. A shift in wind direction could rapidly turn a slower moving flanking fire to a head fire, increasing its rate of spread."
"Fuel risks involve a number of factors with fuel load being one of the most important factors controlling fire intensity. Fire intensity is directly proportional to a fuels heat of combustion, the amount of fuel consumed, and a fires rate of spread. Fuel loads are dependent on vegetation type, life stage (older, over- mature plant communities may have an accumulation of large woody debris), and time since the last fire."
Bob Sieben, fire prevention coordinator for Hiller Highlands provided the following account of this recent fire, in which he credits prior removal of non-native species for minimizing what might have been a much more damaging fire:
"This potentially catastrophic fire began at or before 11:15 am on Thursday June 12th on a declared Red Alert day with high winds. There was dense regrowth of Monterey pines in the exact area of this fire following the firestorm of 1991. Prior to the firestorm the pines were so dense that one could not see across this canyon. Survivors of the firestorm reported hearing one pine tree after another exploding in fire: Monterey pines may ignite simply from being heated without an actual flame. All 200 Monterey pines in Hiller Phase V and all 600 on the adjacent property just East of it were removed in 2003 by volunteers and workers paid with funds raised from the entire Hiller Highlands community. There were easily 600 pines in the area occurring in dense, at times impenetrable, groves of as many as a dozen or more in a square yard. Many were already 20 to 30 feet tall. The lower branches died back as the trees reached for light and there was dense pine duff underneath, constituting an extreme fire danger.
I personally walked this area before the June 12th fire and cut the few pines that had reseeded. The fire of June 12th would have been far worse had these pines not been removed. The fire burned into the exact steep area where pine trees had been. The fire in the recovering sparse woodland of live oaks, bays and elderberries was therefore manageable by firefighting forces. In fact, it was successfully contained in this area and prevented from spreading northeastward toward homes on Charing Cross Road, and beyond.
The part of the fire threatening homes on Charing Cross entered a very steep area where coyote brush had not been cleared, trees had not been laddered and planting poles still attached to redwoods contributed to the fire crowning into the trees. A patch of prostrate coyote bush used in landscaping helped leapfrog the fire up the hill. These problems have been reduced or eliminated since the fire. From personal experience I can attest that this is a very steep and risky hill to work on. There was only one ember caused fire at a distance from the fire front. A water drop put out the resulting spot fire promptly by an alert East Bay Regional Parks helicopter flying overhead.
The speedy response of the OFD was laudatory. They could not have contained this fire in the 90 minutes they did if the residents had not eliminated the Monterey pines from this area well before the fire occurred, giving the firefighters the chance to control it. In other words the vegetation management plan was successful in that this fire was manageable and failed to spread by embers beyond the area. The firemen on the scene thanked us profusely for the work we had done in advance, giving them the chance to control this fire. Clear cutting the entire slope or covering it with cement would have prevented a fire, but was never considered. We learned that even on very steep slopes appropriate fire prevention measures can be taken without damage to the slope."
The three grants are:
PDMC-PJ-09-CA-2005-011 Strawberry Canyon
PDMC-PJ-09-CA-2005-003 Claremont Canyon
PDMC-PJ-09-CA-2006-004 Oakland/Frowning Ridge
These grants were awarded in 2005 and 2006 in a nationwide competition for pre- disaster mitigation funds in which 130 California agencies participated. In 2006, only three grants were awarded in this state and only 19 grants were awarded nationally. This speaks to the recognized wildfire risks faced by agencies and residents in the East Bay Hills, the quality of the three agency projects, and the need for completing all three projects without delay.
The FEMA UC Strawberry Canyon Draft Environmental Assessment comment period closed on January 26, 2008. FEMA then referred a list of technical questions to the University. The University responded to FEMA on April 10, 2008 and again on June 6, 2008. Nothing happened during the next five months until November 17, 2008 when FEMA wrote to the State Office of Emergency Services (who is the intermediary between FEMA and local agencies) asking the University to respond to six additional questions. More than a year has passed with various questions and challenges to the project that have held up authorization to proceed, but as this is written we are hopeful that the remaining issues can soon be resolved.
Officers of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy are working with officials at U.C, the City of Oakland, and the Hills Emergency Forum as well as our elected representatives to ensure that the work that these FEMA grants were awarded for is commenced and successfully completed. The CCC is urging FEMA to meet with agency representatives to finalize and issue the Environmental Assessment for Strawberry Canyon. The Conservancy is also urging the issuance of the Draft Environmental Assessments for the Claremont Canyon and Oakland Hills grant projects for public comment.
This information has been compiled and posted on the Conservancy's website as a public service. The Conservancy is convinced that the issue of fire safety in Claremont Canyon is important enough to be worthy of our best efforts as people of good will. Only by working together as a community and using the best available information can we hope to understand and significantly reduce the widely recognized fire hazard that exists in the vicinity of the canyon.
Membership in the Claremont Canyon Conservancy is open to everyone. Please consider joining the organization if you have not already done so.