UC awarded $3.6 million grant for its Hill Campus by Jerry Kent

After more than a decade of disappointments in its failure to obtain funding to assist with vegetation management and wildfire protection, the University of California is once again hopeful as it has been awarded a $3.6 million grant from Cal Fire.

UC’s Grant Proposal to Cal Fire: The University of California at Berkeley proposes to treat vegetation in 250 acres in its Hill Campus (upper parts of Strawberry and Claremont canyons) to reduce wildfire hazard to its buildings and nearby homes, targeting areas forested with “flammable eucalyptus and high fuel volume.” UC will also create defensible space within 100 feet of roads, fire-trails, buildings, and homes and increase the reliability of the 150 KV transmission line that supplies power the campus and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

UC’s stated purpose is to protect 3,000 habitable structures and dozens of campus buildings in the hills, including those of the main campus and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, both institutions of international importance. It is likely that once environmental reviews are completed, UC will be approved and able to use the funds to study, plan, and implement wildfire mitigation on its Hill Campus. Cal Fire’s request for proposal, along with any requirements from regulating agencies like the US and California Fish & Wildlife Services, will guide the final project and environmental documents. UC has already begun conducting biological surveys and negotiating with a CEQA (environmental compliance) consultant.

Alvarado Ridge shortly after the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire with the Stonewall-Panoramic Ridge across the canyon in the distance.

Alvarado Ridge shortly after the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire with the Stonewall-Panoramic Ridge across the canyon in the distance.

Many of us living in the hills in 1991 had first-hand experience with the disastrous Oakland/Berkley firestorm. That fire destroyed more than 3,000 homes in one day, killed 25 people, and cost more than two billion dollars. We thought no fire could ever be worse than that; but 26 years later we were proven wrong with the Tubbs, Carr, Woolsey, and Camp fires together burning 28,000 structures and killing 120 people. Unimaginable family disruptions followed, with costs expected to rise above $30 billion. PG&E is now in bankruptcy because of potential claims that their equipment started several of the fires.

The University of California began a successful program of wildfire mitigation in Strawberry and Claremont canyons in the early 2000s. The Claremont Canyon Conservancy was newly-formed, and we worked in tandem with UC’s emergency preparedness manager, Tom Klatt. Klatt directed a phased program of removing freeze-damaged, coppiced eucalyptus and other hazardous trees on the south side of Claremont Canyon. We believe this was a perfect solution for the canyon and have supported UC’s attempts to do the same for the north side of the canyon.

The costs to UC back then averaged about $6,000 per acre. The result is a beautiful woodland of naturally occurring oaks, bays, willows, redwoods and native shrubs that requires less and less on-going maintenance as time goes on. As our survey attests, local residents support this type of vegetation management. They do not accept that flammable trees can be fire-safe during 40 mph “Diablo” winds that occur every fall, accompanied by high temperatures and low humidity.

No longer can California residents be complacent as climate change and the “new reality” bring more extreme weather and increasing wildfires. We will keep Conservancy members informed as planning progresses.