As we slog through our fourth year of drought and once again watch wildfires devastate communities all across California and the West, we must acknowledge that the hotter, drier conditions we face due to climate disruption are not going away. With that in mind, it’s more important than ever to prioritize fire prevention in our vegetation management strategies for the Bay Area’s East Bay hills.
Ever since the Great Fire of 1991 ravaged the East Bay hills at a cost of 25 lives and 3.9 billion in present-day dollars, the Sierra Club has worked with fire experts, public officials, and environmental groups like the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy to develop an ecologically- and fiscally-sustainable model for fire management that not only reduces the risk of fires, but also promotes diverse and healthy ecosystems.
The preferred strategy for vegetation management in the East Bay hills entails removing the most highly flammable, ember-generating trees like eucalyptus in phases — only in select areas considered most at risk for fire along the urban-wild interface. Once the flammable non-native trees are removed, less flammable native species can reclaim those areas and provide for a rebound of biodiversity. This model of fire prevention can summarized as the the “Three R’s”:
- 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; and
- RE-ESTABLISH greater biodiversity of flora and fauna, including endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake.
Clearing up misconceptions
There is a lot of misinformation floating around about this preferred model for the care and management of vegetation in the East Bay hills. Here are the facts about a few of these misunderstandings:
The Sierra Club’s approach does NOT call for clearcutting. Under “Remove, Restore, Re-establish” thousands of acres of eucalyptus and other non-natives will remain in the East Bay hills. Our proposal only covers areas near homes and businesses where a fire would be most costly to lives and property. In fact, removing monoculture eucalyptus groves and providing for the return of native ecosystems will create a much richer landscape than the alternative — thinning — which requires regularly scraping away the forest floor to remove flammable debris.
Our preferred approach does NOT focus on eucalyptus merely because they are non-natives. Rather, it is because they pose a far higher fire risk than native landscapes. Eucalyptus shed ten to fifty times more debris per acre than grasslands, native live oak groves, or bay forests — and that debris, in the form of branches, leaves, and long strips of bark, ends up draped in piles that are a near-optimal mixture of oxygen and fuel for fire. Eucalyptus trees ignite easily and have a tendency to dramatically explode when on fire. Also, eucalyptus embers stay lit longer than embers from other vegetation; coming off trees that can grow above 120 feet tall, those embers can stay lit as the wind carries them for miles.
Any herbicide use to prevent the regrowth of eucalyptus once they’ve been cut down (they quickly sprout suckers otherwise) would be hand applied in minimal amounts under strict controls. Any herbicide application must undergo a full environmental review to prevent impacts on humans, wildlife, and habitat. There are also methods other than herbicide that can be used to prevent regrowth, and the Sierra Club encourages the agencies that manage the land where fire mitigation occurs to explore these alternatives to find the most sustainable, responsible option.
For a deeper look at the science behind the strategy we call “Remove, Restore, and Re-establish” please see our Frequently Asked Questions.