Restoring a north coastal grassland for wildfire safety

In 1989, my family and I moved into our new home on a steep, narrow road that dead-ended in a marvelous wildland park. Our lot was the last on the street and was itself effectively a wild garden with a shady front yard of live oak trees and a sunny back hill covered with grass and forbs. Upwards from our lot rose the ridges and draws of the park, the steep 208-acre Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. The Preserve, part of the East Bay Regional Park District’s 65-park system, connected to UC land in upper Claremont Canyon and to untold acres of open space along the East Bay Hills.

I felt incredibly lucky to be living so close to nature yet also near to all the amenities of a comfortable urban life. It didn’t take long, however, to discover that I had moved to a high wildfire danger area. In 1991, the devastating Oakland Tunnel Fire came rushing within throwing distance of our home. While the winds turned in our favor that day and we were spared, more than 3,000 other families lost their homes and 25 people lost their lives. Eight years later, in 1999, we witnessed another wildfire, this time in the Preserve just beyond our fence. Again, we were fortunate that our home was spared, as winds that day were calm and the two-acre blaze was brought quickly under control by a bevy of fire fighters and helpful neighbors.

The experience of these two fires set me on a journey—a journey of learning and of caring: caring for our property, caring for the land, caring for the community, and finding out, as best I could, how to live at the wildland-urban interface.

I began my journey by learning more about the canyon’s vegetation and the fact that it must be managed both on private property and along the interface between private and public lands. I learned that our native vegetation, a mixture of perennial grasses and scattered low-lying shrubs with live oaks in the canyon draws (a typical north coastal grassland) is naturally more fire-safe as well as more beneficial to our local birds and other wildlife. Most annual grasses that we see on our hills throughout the East Bay are not native. They produce flashy fuels, or, in the case of shrubs like French broom, they include dry, woody twigs and leaves that burn hot in a fire. Eucalyptus and other Australian trees are particularly hazardous if ignited during a “Diablo wind” day, when hot, dry winds rush in from the east every fall.

Taking a hard look at the land behind my fence, I found it to be a rather good example of a north coastal grassland. Native bunch grasses were there, scattered coyote brush, and an array of flowering forbs, including lupine, sticky yellow monkey flower, Indian paintbrush and more. Mixed in, of course, were the inevitable annual grasses. Also a colony of French broom had moved in and was threatening to spread. Two groves of eucalyptus were close by, a small one to our east and a larger one to our west. What to do about these?

While I was thinking about all this, I joined eleven of my neighbors on a task force studying issues related to Claremont Canyon. In 2001 the task force decided to incorporate as a nonprofit membership organization and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy was formed. The Conservancy membership grew quickly—in the first year more than 100 families and later more than 500 families joined the efforts to educate ourselves and to work cooperatively with the managers of our adjacent public lands.

The managers, it turned out, were more than willing to listen, share information, and, eventually, when mutual confidence was gained, work together with us. In 2004 the Conservancy applied for and received a federal grant to aid the Park District in reducing vegetation in the Stonewall area, as well as in two other areas of Claremont Canyon. It was agreed that eucalyptus trees would be dealt with first and the entire Stonewall portion of the grant went to removing trees at the edge of the Park District’s large eucalyptus grove in the vicinity of an East Bay MUD water tank. Later in 2008, the aforementioned small grove (about 30 trees) to the west of the Stonewall neighborhood was removed as well.

By 2009, the grassland behind our fence was notably in need of attention. Most obvious was overgrown brush and poison oak along the fence line and French broom encroaching into an otherwise fairly pristine area. The situation seemed manageable to me, however, and I started drawing the Park District’s attention to what must have seemed a minuscule problem among its 100,000 acres of parkland in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Nevertheless, in 2010, much to my satisfaction, the District embarked on a brisk program to cut, pile and burn brush in the Stonewall area. This was a response, not just to my pleas, I’m sure, but to their own plans to protect homes, a 14-acre eucalyptus grove at the trailhead, the Elmwood District adjacent to the grove, and, potentially, the entire the City of Berkeley.

With a sense of gratitude and with the District’s permission, I took it upon myself to monitor the land in the lower Preserve. I was already visiting there daily, having recently acquired a puppy eager to go out on leash. With the District’s support and through the auspices of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, I began to conduct follow-up forays—hand pulling broom seedlings as they emerged in the pile-burned areas and elsewhere in the lower Preserve. My goal was complete eradication of French broom in lower Claremont Canyon. My thought was that while the District has its hands full with a serious broom problem in the upper Preserve, volunteers like me could help hold the line and maintain a broom-free lower Preserve.

Wildfire hazard mitigation efforts, such as those described here, are part of the landowners’ work in Claremont Canyon and have been for years. The ongoing challenge is to mobilize enough human and financial resources to maintain a valid fuel break that in case of a fire could buffer homes and provide a place for fire fighters to stage equipment and personnel. In 2011 and 2012, the Conservancy applied for a Federal wildfire prevention grant to supplement landowners’ efforts in Claremont Canyon. The aim was to provide a platform for sharing knowledge and skills among multiple parties and to get more boots on the ground and more tools in the hands of people capable of doing the work. While we were not awarded the grants those years, it was heartening to see so many people working together to create a community-wide approach to wildfire safety.  We will try again. They say that the third time is a winner.  Fingers crossed.