Making Claremont Canyon fire-safe, working with UC

by Barry Pilger, Tim Wallace, and Jerry Kent, with editorial assistance by Marilyn Goldhaber and Andrea Pflaumer

Over the last nine years, the Conservancy has developed a strong working relationship with the University of California and its restoration and fire safety projects in Claremont Canyon. Much of our concerns have focused on the dense groves of eucalyptus on U.C. land in the upper portion of the Canyon. If a fire were to start there on a Diablo wind day, or start anywhere along the ridge that frames the upper canyon, the resulting conflagration could move quickly into the 120-foot tall tree canopy and send embers raining down into the lower canyon and adjacent residential areas. The weather, combined with the saddle-shaped topography of Claremont Canyon and the highly flammable nature of eucalyptus, could lead to disaster for residents below.

U.C. and other public agencies that own land in Claremont Canyon embarked on the first large-scale eucalyptus removal program during the winter of 1972 following a nine-day freeze. Damage from the freeze was severe. Dead limbs, leaves, and branches covered the ground; tree trunks stood amid the debris, stark, ominous, and apparently dead. As a result, the hills were declared a State Disaster Area. With the memory of a devastating 1970 wildfire still fresh in everyone’s mind, thousands of dead-looking eucalyptus stems throughout the hills and on U.C. land were felled and hauled away, leaving only the stumps. Many of those stumps, however, were not really dead and soon began to send up vigorous, fast-growing sprouts. In addition, hundreds of new eucalyptus seedlings were able to germinate and become established in the mineral soil that was churned up and exposed by the logging operation. The Berkeley Rotary Club planted redwood trees in Tilden Park and the Piedmont Rotary Club planted trees in the upper reaches of Claremont Canyon, hoping that they would outpace and replace the eucalyptus.

However, the eucalyptus continued to multiply and grow. A second major effort by U.C. to tackle the problem began in the mid-1980s, but was halted temporarily in response to protests by a local group. It wasn’t until after the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire that U.C.’s Fire Mitigation Committee agreed to establish an effective fuel management strategy for all campus areas including the hill area and upper Claremont Canyon. The problem facing U.C. in the late 1990s was how to reduce existing stands of eucalyptus and manage the proliferation of other fire-prone non-native vegetation. This meant logging eucalyptus, pine, and acacia and eliminating broom, poison hemlock, and cape ivy.

At the same time, a neighborhood group, the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association, convened a task force (this was later to evolve into the Claremont Canyon Conservancy) to study wildfire mitigation in Claremont Canyon. Findings from the task force were presented in 2001 to U.C. by the Conservancy’s founding president Tim Wallace in a meeting with the U.C. Chancellor and several university administrators. Wallace introduced the newly formed Conservancy and its goals, and described the enormous liability U.C. would face if a fire were to start in the University’s neglected eucalyptus forests and then spread to adjacent neighborhoods. The Chancellor directed staff to confront the problem and establish a long-term program to lower the risk of another wildfire. Work commenced under the supervision of U.C.’s Fire Mitigation Program, directed by Tom Klatt in his role as emergency preparedness manager.

A few years earlier, Tom Klatt had been designated the University’s representative on the Hills Emergency Forum (HEF), a multiagency task force formed after the 1991 fire. HEF consisted of local fire chiefs and agency representatives from Oakland, Berkeley, U.C., the East Bay Regional Park District, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, all of whom were stakeholders in the area. The HEF’s firefighters and vegetation management specialists gave Klatt advice about “best practices” for tackling the Canyon’s fire hazard problems and provided information from the HEF’s 1995 fire mitigation plan and program.

With funds from a FEMA grant, supported by the HEF, and backed by the Conservancy with its 200 (later growing to 500) members, U.C. began the first in a new series of projects to clear eucalyptus, pine, acacia, and broom. To make sure that U.C. was operating with the support of the community, the Conservancy polled its membership and found that the vast majority (98% of respondents) approved of the plan for removing eucalyptus and converting the University’s land to native vegetation. This was the start of seven years of work in Claremont Canyon. Throughout those years, the Conservancy conducted stewardship projects with its members volunteering to remove invasive non-native brush, including French broom and poison hemlock. With the advice and encouragement of Professor William Libby, a world-renowned forest geneticist with a special interest in redwoods, the Conservancy also planted redwood seedlings grown from the seeds of naturally-occurring redwoods in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills. This popular planting program involved more than 200 volunteers working in collaboration with the U.C. Forestry Club and its faculty advisor, Forestry Professor Kevin O’Hara. A local Boy Scout troop was also involved. The redwood program was based on board member Joe Engbeck’s suggestions and was carried out over a five-year period.

The presence of the Alameda whipsnake (listed as endangered in 2003 and found on University property) required U.C. forestry projects to undergo scrutiny by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While preparing grant requests for federal funding, the University discovered that one of U.S.F.W.S.’s approved strategies for habitat restoration was the removal of exotic trees and closed canopy forests, enabling whipsnake habitat restoration and fire safety projects to proceed hand-in-hand. Year by year as the eucalyptus trees were removed, the upper canyon gradually returned to a more natural, native flora that included local shrubs and native trees such as oaks, bays, madrones, and redwoods. Vegetation on the south side of Claremont Avenue, where the University and Conservancy have worked, is now significantly more fire-safe than the highly flammable eucalyptus grove along the north side of the road (see photo above).

Under the guidance of U.C.’s Tom Klatt, the Conservancy has run a focused volunteer program over the past two years to remove newly germinated eucalyptus, pine, and acacia from the Canyon’s headslope. These efforts have proved remarkably effective in eradicating invasive trees while allowing natives to establish themselves in the cleared areas. These workdays are currently focused on broom, as the eradication of eucalyptus resprouts is nearly complete.

To date, U.C. has removed close to 19,000 eucalyptus trees and converted 165 acres of its land to native vegetation. U.C. has employed several approaches to dealing with the logged material but now favors chipping and leaving the biomass on site as mulch and weed suppression. To avoid the problem of re-sprouting, eucalyptus stumps are treated with a small amount of herbicide applied directly to the cambium layer of the stump immediately after felling. According to Klatt, the herbicide is quickly transported to the root system of the tree, binding tightly to organic material, thereby minimizing the possibility of leaching into the soil or nearby creeks. The surrounding native flora should be unaffected and remain healthy. “Studies of these herbicides have been funded by the National Park Service,” explains Klatt. “They’re peer-reviewed and found to be safe for use by the Park Service.”

The use of eucalyptus chips has saved U.C. thousands of dollars and helped the University achieve its goals. In addition to suppressing weeds, the chip beds retard erosion, smother and rot the extant eucalyptus seed stock, and make it much easier to attack resprouts and pull seedlings. This mulch helps retain valuable soil moisture during our long, dry summers and provides nutrients for native trees that tend to thrive once the eucalyptus are removed.

But work on U.C. land in Claremont Canyon is far from complete. In 2005, U.C. was awarded two FEMA grants totaling $840,000 for work in Claremont and Strawberry Canyons. In 2006, the City of Oakland, the East Bay Regional Park District, and U.C. applied for and won a $4 million FEMA grant to continue the removal of hazardous vegetation in the East Bay hills. These projects have already been delayed for four to five years by FEMA, and will now be delayed another two years as a result of FEMA’s April, 2010 decision to require a programmatic environmental impact statement before releasing any further funds for mitigation of the wildfire hazard.

The Conservancy Board and its membership have benefited from collaboration with Tom Klatt and U.C.’s wildfire hazard mitigation program. But continued advocacy, maintenance of the successful partnership forged over the years, and more hard work will be necessary to attain the objective we all seek: a safer, more natural, and more easily accessible Claremont Canyon.