Screening of the movie “Bring Back the Oaks,” by Janis Bankoff

On June 6, 2016, at Hiller Highlands Country Club, the Conservancy hosted the premier screening of the film “Bring Back the Oaks: Managing vegetation to reduce fire risk in the East Bay Hills.” Inspired by the controversy surrounding the FEMA grants for wildfire hazard mitigation, and in an effort to address public concerns, the making of the film was co-sponsored by the Sierra Club and the Conservancy, with a grant from the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund. The film sought to document the Sierra’ Club’s recommended “3 R’s” vegetation management protocol: Remove, Restore, Re-establish.

REMOVE the most flammable non-native trees in select areas most at risk for fire. 

RESTORE those areas with more naturally fire resistant native trees and plants. 

RE-ESTABLISH greater biodiversity of flora and fauna, including endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake.

The screening was well-attended by members of the Conservancy and the public, as well as by local dignitaries, including Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Reed, Oakland Fire Marshal Miguel Trujillo, Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, and others. 

Following the screening, the Conservancy hosted a panel discussion of experts, including Scott Stephens, University of California professor of Wildland Resource and Fire Ecology and founder of the Stephens Lab at UCB to study wildland fire science, forest policy, and forest management. Other expert panelists were Martin Matarrese, retired Wildfire Prevention Assessment District Supervisor for the City of Oakland and currently involved in vegetation management efforts involving goat grazing; and, Norman La Force, Chair of the Sierra Club’s East Bay Public Lands Committee, a staunch advocate for fire safety and environmental protection. Says La Force, “It’s time for us to be economically smart and environmentally conscious.” Also on the panel were Conservancy board members and dedicated canyon stewards, Jon Kaufman and Bob Strayer. 

Moderator Jim Hanson, a member of the Sierra Club and California Native Plant Society, led a lively panel discussion on the topic of intelligent, science-based vegetation management. 

A dessert reception of French pastries, cheese and coffee was provided, thanks to the very generous donations from local merchants: Star Grocery on Claremont Avenue, La Farine Boulangerie Patisserie on College Avenue and Fournée Bakery on Domingo Avenue. Thanks also to Conservancy member Bob Sieben for help in procuring the Hiller Highlands meeting room. 

Later that same week, at the invitation of Berkeley City Coucilmember Susan Wengraf, “Bring Back the Oaks” was screened at the Wildfire and Climate Change Forum which took place at the Northbrae Community Center in Berkeley, and included fire officials from Berkeley, Moraga/ Orinda and the East Bay Regional Park District, among others. As Councilmember Wengraf reminded the group, “Fire knows no boundaries.” The bringing together of a consortium of local experts in the field of fire safety is a reminder that we work best when we work together. 

Shortly thereafter, the film had a third screening by request of the East Bay Regional Park District’s Volunteer Trail Safety Patrol at their monthly meeting. About 50 members of the volunteer patrol attended and gave a warm welcome to Conservancy board member and Garber Park Steward Bob Strayer who led the discussion afterwards on vegetation management. He also updated the group on the status of the FEMA wildfire hazard mitigation grants and on upcoming events commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the 1991 Oakland Tunnel Fire. The Park District’s volunteer patrol works with the District police department providing friendly volunteers in uniform on the trails. Their mission is to: “educate, observe, and report.” 

Following all three screenings, the question “What’s next?” was raised and discussed. While some people have questioned the wisdom of the proposed FEMA-funded project for vegetation management in the hills, the consensus opinion of fire science experts is that the removal of the overstory eucalyptus trees and native conversion in Recommended Treatment Areas (RTA’s) will greatly reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the East Bay Hills. 

It is anticipated that hills fuels management will begin soon, at least on Park District lands. The community needs to know what to expect. Emphasis was also placed on the importance of mandatory vegetation management by individual residential property owners, as well as on the importance of parking to maintain adequate street access for emergency vehicles.