Wildfire hazard reduction and resource management plan-an update, by Pat O'Brien

Guest article by Pat O’Brien, General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District, October 15, 2010 (Note: Mr. O'Brien retired in 2011)

ON APRIL 20, 2010 THE PARK DISTRICT Board of Directors unanimously approved the Park District’s Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan and its accompanying EIR. The approval followed six years of hard work by staff, consultants, natural resource specialists, planners, cooperating agencies, and the public, and will pave the way for important fire hazard reduction work to begin in Claremont Canyon and several other East Bay Hills regional parks.

Wildfire hazard reduction and fuels management issues are nothing new to the Park District. In fact, we’ve been involved in at least half a dozen fuels management plans since the District’s 1936 “General Fire Plan” decried the dangerous fire conditions created by past fires and frosts in the eucalyptus and pine plantations, and outlined the need for fuelbreak construction and maintenance. A Blue Ribbon Commission in 1982, the East Bay Hills Vegetation Management Consortium in 1995 following the Tunnel Fire, and numerous individual park land management plans have described the dire need and effective ways to address the mounting accumulation of forest fuels that could contribute to future fire disasters. After each plan was finished, a good start was made to address the hazardous fuels along the interface between our parklands and our urban residential neighbors. But each time, for a variety of reasons, our commitment and focus waned.

So what’s different this time? First, we have a better understanding of what needs to be done to reduce the flammability of our wildlands in the East Bay Hills, and how to do it. We’re learning from our past successes and failures, what we’re now calling “adaptive management,” and making it a cornerstone of our future hazard reduction work. Second, our staff and our Board understand more than ever before, the absolutely critical commitment we must make to regular maintenance of the fuels treatments we undertake. And we have made that commitment. Third, where past planning efforts have been conducted on an individual park and rather piecemeal basis, this time we took a more holistic, ecosystem-wide approach to the planning and environmental analysis. And, finally, as promised to the voters in 2004 in Measure CC, we placed a special emphasis on protecting and where possible enhancing natural resources such as plant and wildlife habitats, soil, watershed and air quality, and cultural resource values during fuels treatment activities.

All this was not without controversy. Some citizens expressed concern over our proposed use of herbicides to control eucalyptus stump sprouts that often defeated past fuelbreak construction efforts. Others asserted that this was simply a native plant restoration plan in disguise and would even increase the potential for devastating wildfires in the future. Still others claimed it would cause environmental destruction and production of greenhouse gases on a scale never before seen in the Bay Area, and they have launched a lawsuit. But we have a strong, science-based plan of action backed up by a solid, CEQA-compliant environmental analysis. We have a committed team of fire, stewardship and operations professionals that have demonstrated they can get the job done well. Just as important, we have the unanimous support of our Board of Directors. So, as we move forward, I am confident that we will warrant the public’s trust in reducing wildfire risks in Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve as well as in our other regional parklands in the East Bay Hills.