Fifteen years after the firestorm, the Claremont Canyon Conservancy and U.C. try to prevent another disaster
On that hot and windy October afternoon 15 years ago, Marilyn Goldhaber grabbed her triplet boys and dashed out of Claremont Canyon, the fingers of the firestorm racing toward her home.
The fire spared Goldhaber’s home that day but ravaged her community and now she’s making sure history won’t repeat itself. Goldhaber is an active board member on the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, a nonprofit formed five years ago to reduce fire fuels and restore the 550-acre canyon to its native flora. The Conservancy has raised more than $100,000 from members and secured $153,000 in grants from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to cut, clear, and plant.
So far, 15,000 eucalyptus trees—the non-native and highly flammable trees that went up like matchsticks in the 1991 firestorm—have been cut down to make way for native shrubs like Northcoast chaparral and trees like the Coastal live oak that naturally resist fire. Although there are some who oppose the effort for aesthetic reasons, Conservancy leaders say most residents are on board.
“No one ever thought we could do winter logging in the Berkeley hills with community support,” says Tom Klatt, manager of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the U.C. Police Department. “But you won’t find a better educated nor more environmentally sensitive population of stakeholders.”
Throughout the canyon that straddles either side of Claremont Avenue and spreads westward from Grizzly Peak Boulevard are vast swaths of eucalyptus, imported at the end of the 19th century in an effort to grow and harvest hardwood for railroad ties and housing development. In a classic example of good intentions gone wrong, not only was the wood deemed inappropriate for those purposes, the detritus from the leaves and shedding bark choked out native vegetation and eliminated wildlife habitat.
As residents learned in 1991, the trees were an efficient and deadly medium for the rapid spread of fire when combined with 40-mile-per-hour down-slope winds.
“Eucalpytus not only has a highly volatile oil content, its aerodynamic leaves can send flaming material more than a mile away onto rooftops and down chimneys,” says Ken Blonski, fire marshal of the East Bay Regional Park District.
Prior efforts to control the Canyon’s vegetation met with benign neglect, according to Conservancy members. In 1968, a group called the Friends of Claremont Canyon convinced the Regional Park District to lease and then purchase part of the Canyon as a regional preserve in order to prevent the state from selling it to private developers.
“Once the work was done to secure it as a preserve, the group was not interested in doing more,” says Joe Engbeck, Conservancy vice president and longtime member of Save the Redwoods. In two decades, the Canyon filled with dense native scrub—French broom, coyote brush, and poison oak—making access paths to the proliferating eucalyptus trees nearly impassible.
A cold snap during the winter of 1973 blanketed the Canyon with a four-inch layer of snow, apparently killing off thousands of eucalyptus trees that were then logged by the Park District and other agencies. But for every tree that actually died, more lay dormant until the stumps gave birth to multiple sprouts a few years later.
“Each one was like a Hydra head,” explained U.C.’s Klatt. The University removed trees from the hundreds of acres it owns in the Claremont Canyon during the 1980s, but a small and vocal group of citizens stopped the effort, believing eucalyptus did not pose a real fire threat.
Even today, some neighbors in the Canyon and near the University are opposed to the removal of the breezy and fragrant trees for other reasons: aesthetics, visual privacy, traffic-sound control, and erosion prevention.
Dan Grassetti, a resident whose view was severely impacted, has been highly critical. “The proponents of these projects seem to believe that the end justifies the means.”
But the 1991 fire changed the minds of most residents and the Conservancy moved forward. The organization had funds from the Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the habitat of the Alameda whipsnake, an animal threatened when the eucalyptus detritus covered its habitat of grass, brush, and rocky outcroppings. But the group wanted to do more.
In 2001, Conservancy founder Tim Wallace threatened U.C. with a lawsuit if they didn’t come up with a plan to remove fire fuels. Unbeknownst to Wallace, Klatt had already secured funding to do just that.
Klatt, who has degrees in business and conservation, and Wallace started to meet weekly to come up with plans to remake the Canyon. They launched efforts to cut down thousands of eucalyptus.
The spinning, cutting head drum of a machine dubbed the “brontosaurus” has made eucalyptus removal cost-effective (around $30 per tree) and fast. The machine can grind a 40-foot tree to twigs in four minutes. The “feller-buncher,” controlled by an operator in a self-leveling cab (enabling work on steep slopes), grabs the trunk of the tree, slices it at its base, and then lays it on its side, until it is fed through a giant chipper.
Klatt is treating the stumps with herbicide within three minutes of cutting to prevent the same mistake made in the 1970s when they were left to resprout. He’s avoiding the financial and environmental costs of using fossil fuels to haul the eucalyptus logs away, choosing instead to leave the biomass from the trees to prevent erosion and create habitats for rodents and reptiles.
Some residents fear the piles of debris themselves represent a fire hazard.
But Fire Marshal Blonski says a fire burns four times the height of its fuels and a short pile of decomposing mulch burns a lot lower than a so-called “crown” fire that leaps across 200-foot-high eucalyptus trees.
Although the Park District and the University continue to use herds of goats in some areas to masticate brush, the animals are not picky about what they eat, so the Conservancy sought alternative ways to manage the remaining fuels. Volunteers fan out in weekend weed-pulling parties to eliminate patches of Yellow starthistle, one of the most intractable invasives.
And the Conservancy is pressing for the restoration of native trees such as Big Leaf maple and California buckeye. “We quickly learned that one of the best ways to ensure fire safety in our neighborhoods was to encourage native vegetation,” Goldhaber says.
Laura Baker, vice president of the East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society, warns that it’s important to watch carefully to what happens when trees and other plants are removed.
“You get weeds moving in, like French broom, which is extremely difficult to get rid of and highly flammable when it dries out,” she explains.
Bill McClung of Shelterbelt Builders, a private company that does land management and native plant restoration, agrees. Surveying an area his company managed for the Conservancy last year, he furrows his brow as he watches a fluffy seed head float by from a neighboring private parcel covered with hemlock and Italian thistle, and headed for a hillside where native plants are flourishing. “It’s going down there to create mischief,” he says. McClung explains that effective eradication requires years of removing weeds before they go to seed, often twice a year.
Goldhaber says she was comforted recently when some of the eucalyptus behind her home were finally felled. Even so, she and other residents say they understand that a permanent transformation of the area will take many years of ongoing management of the underbrush.
“This is not a sprint,” says Klatt. “It’s going to be a marathon.”
Today, the drive along Grizzly Peak between Claremont Avenue, Fish Ranch Road, and Centennial Drive is a little disconcerting for regular commuters used to seeing banks of towering eucalyptus trees. Parts of the surrounding embankments and hillsides still resemble a moonscape more than an urban park.
The removal of the trees, however, unveiled one of the most stunning mile-long views in the Bay Area. Says Klatt: “You innovate and take risks . . . and sometimes you get serendipitous results.”
Andrea Pflaumer is a Berkeley-based nonfiction writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly. Her work has also appeared in Pacific Sun News Weekly.