A brief history of wildfire in Claremont Canyon

by Barry Pilger, Jerry Kent, Joe Engbeck, Marilyn Goldhaber and Mary Millman

IN THE BEGINNING: Throughout the latter part of the 1800s, Claremont Canyon, like much of the East Bay Hills, was utilized primarily for cattle grazing and dairy farming. The landscape was mostly grassland, a likely mixture of native bunch grasses and exotic annual grasses with a scattering of native shrubs and trees.

By the turn of the Twentieth Century, however, developers began eyeing the East Bay for its great potential as a market for housing. Local speculators, including two Oakland businessmen, Frank Havens and Borax Smith, who owned large amounts of East Bay land, embarked on an aggressive program of planting non-native trees—pine, eucalyptus and cypress—above the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, including areas of Claremont Canyon. Their intentions were to “beautify” the landscape to entice families to buy parcels, but much of Havens’ efforts also went into starting eucalyptus plantations in hopes of supplying the rapidly developing area with lumber. To Havens’s disappointment, eucalyptus lumber turned out to be unsuitable for its intended purposes and the plantations were soon abandoned. Until recently, many eucalyptus plantations in the Easy Bay Hills, including over 200 acres in Claremont Canyon, were left largely unattended for the next century.

Eucalyptus and its detritus have had a major impact on the East Bay Hills. While many people over the years have appreciated the fragrant and breezy giants imported from Australia, these trees, Eucalyptus globulus—with their copious, oily litter, hanging bark, and excessive use of ground water—have choked out native flora and the native fauna that depend on it, and added a serious threat of a highly flammable source of fuel. Eucalyptus and to a lesser degree Monterey pine increased the risk from wildfire in an already highly wildfire-prone area.

CLIMATE AND IGNITION SOURCES: Wildfire throughout California has long been a fact of life. Even before recent public concern about global climate change, the Bay Area experienced regular cycles of drought. It is during these times of drought that the danger of fast-moving and destructive wildfire is greatest, especially when combined with the hot, dry, east-to-west “Diablo” winds that spill over our hilltops and tear through our canyons every fall. The upper area of Claremont Canyon, being at one of the lowest points along the Oakland/Berkeley ridge, is a natural channel for the rush of Diablo winds that can reach 50 miles per hour or more.

Every year many small fires ignite in our hills and canyons and are quickly put out. However, during the twentieth century, three mega-fires—fires so large and complex that they overwhelmed local fire-fighting capabilities—reached parts of Claremont Canyon and destroyed many homes in the Oakland/ Berkeley Hills. That fact marks our area as one of the highest risk wildfire areas in the country in terms of property damaged and lives lost.

In order for mega-wildfires—such as those of 1923, 1970 and, most recently, 1991—to swirl out of control, three conditions must be met: 1) warm, dry and windy weather, 2) an initial source of ignition, and 3) a build-up of fuel. While there is little we can do about the weather, there are things we can do about ignition and fuel. We focus in this newsletter on the fuel component, a major interest of the Conservancy since its inception while recognizing that the ignition component is also vitally important and needs to be addressed and monitored— particularly under power lines, along road edges and in places where people and cars congregate. This is an area for future work involving power companies, city officials and the public.

POPULATION GROWTH AND BUILDING CONSTRUCTION: As the overall population in the East Bay increased, many residential communities in the hills developed with little knowledge of the impact of Diablo winds and little regard for long-term wildfire safety. In addition, ingress and egress roads to many of these areas were, and remain, extremely narrow. Older homes designed with sensitivity to aesthetics of the natural environment were often landscaped with pines and constructed with flammable materials, notably wood shingle roofs and wooden decks. When conditions are right, homes themselves become fuel for the spread of wildfire.

WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THE 1991 FIRE: Among the most difficult lessons we learned from the 1991 fire was just how dangerous the situation had become and how unprepared both our community and our emergency services were to deal with a major conflagration.

The 1991 fire began as a small brush fire that was quickly put out, only to revive again the next morning with a surge of strong Diablo wind. Embers still hot from the previous day flared into flames that whipped through dry brush into pines and other dry vegetation and then to homes at the urban-wildland edge, completely overwhelming fire personnel tending the scene. With the fire out of control, flaming debris blew across the hills and canyons into many neighborhoods, igniting anything flammable, eventually destroying 3,000 homes and killing 25 people. What started out as an apparently manageable fire was combined with extreme weather—an estimated 20 mile-per-hour down slope wind that eventually gusted up to 50 miles per hour—and extraordinary amounts of flammable material, including the homes themselves. It was the ‘perfect storm,’ in this case, the perfect firestorm.

THE CASE FOR EUCALYPTUS AND PINE: In the fire’s aftermath, follow-up studies reported that eucalyptus and Monterey pine, because their burning embers and firebrands were carried aloft for long distances, were among the major culprits for propagation of the conflagration and ‘should be controlled’ along with nonnative shrubs like French broom, and dense, dry vegetation found in residential landscapes.

With urging from the Conservancy, public stakeholders in Claremont Canyon, including the University of California, the East Bay Regional Park District, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, began to tackle their portion of the problem by selectively removing major offenders: large plantations of eucalyptus, especially tall eucalyptus trees alongside roads. Where possible, agency workers attempted to retain native vegetation such as oaks, bays, and native shrubs, to repopulate the area. In one area on UC property, redwood seedlings were planted by volunteer groups to enhance a previous project, begun some thirty years earlier, to create a more cool, moist, fire-safe environment in upper Claremont Canyon. Since 2002, more than 8,000 eucalyptus and other trees have come down over 115 acres of UC land, and over 4,000 redwoods have been planted. The felled trees were chipped on site to become a gradually disintegrating mulch. Trees chipped 6-7 years ago have already disintegrated completely, while those chipped 2-5 years ago now cover an estimated five acres with a depth of 6-12 inches. In 2006, another 500 trees, mostly eucalyptus, were removed from Park District land in mid-Claremont Canyon and above the Stonewall trailhead and mostly hauled away by truck.

The awkward period of newly barren vistas where there were once towering trees is giving way to the return of native plant and animal species. A native landscape is essential for certain species, such as the endangered Alameda whipsnake, that rely on grassland and low-lying shrubs. David Kessler, past president of the North Hills Phoenix Association, and a survivor of the 1991 fire, likened the tree removal to having surgery: you don’t feel good the morning you wake up but after a few months or seasons you heal. As he put it ‘the land will heal itself.’

CONSERVANCY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR STAKEHOLDERS: At the Conservancy’s March 2009 meeting the Board of Directors agreed to ask the major public agencies in Claremont Canyon to expedite their work in creating and maintaining fuel breaks in planned locations along the western boundary of the Park District and along Grizzly Peak Boulevard on city, UC, and EBMUD lands. Ridgetop fuel breaks—that is, managed vegetation zones where firefighters could attempt to stop a fire before it can race over into secondary canyons and residential areas—are particularly important.

The Board also requests that an approximately two-milelong fuel break along the urban-wildland interface be created and maintained so that firefighters could safely work to protect homes. The Conservancy does not advocate complete removal of vegetation but a reduction of fuel in a corridor about 100 feet wide (at least 100 feet from structures, maybe more, depending on site-by-site evaluations) behind homes to create a mixture of grassland, scattered trees and low lying native shrubs. Yearly maintenance is essential to this plan. The corridor, which would be entirely on Park District land, would include the west side of Gwin Canyon and areas behind homes east of Claremont Avenue and above (north of) Stonewall Road.

COMMITMENT TO LONG-TERM MAINTENANCE: Long-term maintenance is important because opportunistic weed infestations such as broom and thistle readily occur in disturbed areas, especially after major clearings. Also, eucalyptus, once cut, can sprout several new stems and in a matter of 2 to 3 years become a cluster of tall trees. New eucalyptus seedlings can also appear in a disturbed landscape. Because seeds remain viable for several years, they can readily germinate when conditions are right. If we do not commit to regular follow-up—that is, yearly removal of seedlings, re-sprouts and opportunistic invasions of weeds—all of our efforts will have been in vain. In that unwelcome scenario, the threat of major wildfires in the future will most assuredly increase. In order to maintain the momentum gained we call upon the public agencies that are stakeholders of in the Canyon—the Park District, UC Berkeley, EBMUD and the City of Oakland—to continue their efforts to control high-risk non-native trees and shrubs.

LENGTH OF FOLLOW-UP—NOTES FROM THE FIELD: UC project manager, Tom Klatt, reports that eucalyptus seeds in UC’s restoration area either germinated or decayed within seven years of the eradication harvests: the sites cleared in 2001-2002 now showing virtually no seedling activity. Interestingly, areas in which chips were spread showed from the beginning almost ZERO eucalyptus seedling activity. The moist chip beds apparently caused the seeds to decay before they could germinate. These same chip beds, however, appear to be good for the germination of California bays and coastal live oaks, as the birds and squirrels bury these native seeds a few inches below the chip surface and the seeds then germinate in the moist and fertile chip-mulch. This effect suggests that the retention of eucalyptus biomass may be ideal for suppressing the exotic eucalyptus while favoring the native trees.

FEMA GRANTS: Financial assistance for past large scale vegetation management work in Claremont Canyon has come from federal pre-disaster mitigation grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS). For this we are all very grateful. Unfortunately, the next major award that was in process has been held up for more than a year pending an Environmental Assessment, forestalling $404,000 of FEMA money in neighboring Strawberry Canyon. Two related FEMA grants, one for Claremont Canyon ($418,000) and one for Frowning Ridge ($882,000) are next in line and have yet to reach the public comment stage.

We know how hard our agencies worked to win these grants in a nationally competitive arena and we urge land managers to persevere with their programs of strategic, non-native tree removal and conversion to native species—with a steadfast commitment to long-term follow-up. In order to get the grants back on track the Conservancy has been working with the stakeholders, elected officials and the Hills Emergency Forum to address Environmental Assessment concerns and help FEMA complete the process and move forward. If you want to help urge FEMA to release these funds, contact your council member, mayor, congresswoman, governor or FEMA Region IX headquarters and let them know you want the mitigation work to continue, to lessen the likelihood of another, catastrophic East Bay wildfire. Please email1318 the Conservancy or check our website for further information.

MEASURE CC PLAN AND EIR: Similarly, the Park District’s Measure CC-funded work is behind schedule while staff and consultants continue to hammer out their Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan and Draft EIR. Nevertheless, important restoration work has gone forward in Claremont Canyon, near Stonewall Road and Gelston Road, under environmental clearances and funding from USFWS. Future funding under Measure CC for wildfire mitigation work in Claremont Canyon and Sibley regional preserves is budgeted for $1,175,000, but it is uncertain how much will be assigned to each preserve. We note that the two preserves are not really comparable: Claremont Canyon has a much larger urban-wildland interface and a much more tragic history of wildfire events. An additional $418,060 of Measure CC money is budgeted for Claremont Canyon to complete and maintain a north-to-south and east-to-west trail system consistent with the protection of rare species (red legged frogs and Alameda whipsnakes).

The Conservancy Board continues its dialogue with the Park District to help them over certain hurdles and to make sure that Claremont Canyon issues are clearly addressed. When the Plan and EIR are released, it is hoped sometime this summer, participation of the public during the public comment period will be very important.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR HOMEOWNERS: It is impossible to predict the exact location, source, and timing of an ignition that high winds can transform into a raging wildfire. According to projections we made based on the events of the past hundred years, one, can expect in the next century three Diablo wind mega-fires, seven “normal” Diablo wind fires, possibly as many as 150 “normal” west wind fires, four El Nino events, four extended freezes, and four drought cycles that will all impact wildland vegetation and residential areas of the East Bay Hills. 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.

The Conservancy urges homeowners to familiarize themselves with the excellent fire codes crafted in 2006 by the State of California and implemented in 2009 for enforcement by the cities of Oakland and Berkeley and others. Studies in the aftermath of the 2007 fires in San Diego County confirmed lower burn rates in homes built to new wildfire property protection standards based on the strict requirements of new state codes.

WHERE WE GO FROM HERE—WITH YOUR HELP: Safety and preparedness is important for our entire extended community. One of the most heartening results of our mission has been the opportunity to share many of the lessons we have learned about wildfire prevention, as well as home fire safety guidelines, with our members and to exchange this information with other local organizations that share similar missions and goals, including the Friends of Sausal Creek, Friends of Temescal Creek, the North Hills Phoenix Association, Panoramic Hill Association, Vicente Canyon Neighborhood Association and others.

If you would like to become more involved in the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, we hope you will participate in one of our guided nature walks or help with our monthly stewardship events.    

If you simply want to learn more about fire prevention measures for your own residence, the Conservancy provides a wealth of information and resources on our website. Please join with the 500 households who have already pledged to help the Claremont Canyon Conservancy preserve our wonderful community for future generations.