The East Bay’s burning question: how flammable are eucalyptus?
If you’ve ever wandered up into the Berkeley Hills, whether to visit the Big C, hike the fire trails, or go to an event at the Greek Theater, you’ve probably noticed the swaths of gargantuan eucalyptus trees that tower above you. These green-leafed skyscrapers, beige bark peeling off their trunks, are of the species Eucalyptus globulus, a native of Australia and currently one of the most controversial species in the East Bay Area.
E. globulus didn’t always grow here. In fact, most of the individuals present in the East Bay can be traced back to one man with money on his mind: Frank Havens. As a wealthy entrepreneur and developer, Havens was eager to establish a source of lumber for the booming timber industry in the Bay Area. Due to its rapid growth rate and ability to self-regenerate, E. globulus was targeted as the “get rich quick tree” for timber production as statewide demand for wood products rose. In 1910, Havens began planting high-density eucalyptus groves across a twenty mile stretch of hillside from Richmond to San Leandro, effectively commencing the “eucalyptus craze” that continues to overwhelm East Bay counties today.
Unfortunately for Havens, eucalyptus wood didn’t live up to his expectations. It was soon discovered that E. globulus undergoes wood splitting when it’s chopped down, rendering it useless for the timber industry. So in 1914, just several years after inundating Berkeley and Oakland Hills with eucalyptus trees, Havens abandoned the project and left the species to grow freely. And trust me, it grew.
UC Berkeley professor and ecologist Alan Shabel, who has followed the story of eucalyptus trees in the East Bay for some time now, made several points regarding the proliferation of this species when I interviewed him recently. He explained that what sparks such rapid and abundant growth of E. globulus is largely due to the Bay Area’s heavy fog banks, which produce plenty of moisture to yield scores of tall, thick trees that tend to outcompete native flora. Adding to the problem is the species’ resiliency. Eucalyptus has the ability to resprout from its own stump, relying solely on nutrients stored in its root system below ground. Both of these factors considered, E. globulus has become widely known as an invasive species in the East Bay because it dominates so much of the region’s hills and can be difficult to eradicate.
Most importantly, Shabel discussed the fire hazards posed by these “invasives.” Eucalyptus trees produce thick layers of detritus below their canopies composed of leaves, branches, bark peelings, and seed pods, all of which are thought to contain highly flammable oils. This organic debris is the perfect kindling for a fire sweeping through and can easily cause the tree’s upper branches to catch flame, which can set an entire forest ablaze. Shabel also mentioned the Diablo winds that blow hot, dry air through the Oakland and Berkeley Hills during Fall months. Coupled with the trees’ proximity to such densely-packed urban communities, these conditions create “an absolutely perfect circumstance for a fire.”
After the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Hills firestorm took lives and decimated homes, East Bay residents became increasingly concerned with the threat that E. globulus poses to fire prevention in the area. This unrest sparked local action among several land-owning entities, including the UC Berkeley campus, to work towards eradication of the species. By 2013, the University had already removed roughly 19,000 non-native trees from its campus property, most of them E. globulus.
Lacking the funds to do any further work, in 2013 UC Berkeley banded together with two other local land managers that aimed to confront fire hazard issues involving eucalyptus— the City of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Parks District. Together, the three agencies applied for a $5.67 million grant from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for the removal of eucalyptus and other non-native species on grounds of fire prevention. The grant would give the University funds to remove 22,000 additional trees from both Strawberry and Claremont Canyons; the removal process would include clear-cutting the trees and applying herbicides to their stumps a decade later to prevent regrowth. Tom Klatt, UC Berkeley’s environmental projects manager, claimed that the project would “target the most fire-prone, fuel-productive trees” on campus land and allow native vegetation to slowly reclaim the Oakland and Berkeley Hills landscape. The proposed project quickly gained support from local agencies like the Sierra Club and Claremont Canyon Conservancy, along with mass public support.
Initially, FEMA approved the grant, allotting nearly $6 million in funds to the University, the City of Oakland, and the East Bay Parks District for clear-cutting. However, there was immediate public backlash. The Hills Conservation Network, a local organization, filed a lawsuit against FEMA to challenge its verdict on the environmental impacts of non-native removal in the Hills. The group argued that the project was geared towards native plant revival rather than fire prevention and thus shouldn’t receive funding from FEMA; rather, funds should be put towards removing the detritus underneath eucalyptus and other non-native trees that can fuel fires. HCN was concerned not only with the replacement of E. globulus by other equally flammable species, but also with the application of environmentally toxic herbicides after chopping and the loss of habitat for local wildlife such as the red-tailed hawk and endangered whipsnake.
There was also opposition from unaffiliated local residents, one example being a nude protest in the Eucalyptus Grove on the UC Berkeley campus. This peaceful demonstration aimed to illustrate the social and cultural significance of eucalyptus in the East Bay.
In 2016, FEMA pulled $3.5 million of funding from the original grant amount in order to settle the lawsuit filed by HCN. The remaining funds were allocated only to the East Bay Regional Parks District, which had planned to use its grant money for gradual thinning of diseased E. globulus trees, rather than complete eradication. UC Berkeley and the City of Oakland, which had planned to clear-cut eucalyptus groves in the Hills, consequently lost their portions of the grant. As of now, all eucalyptus will remain in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills while most will remain in East Bay Parks regions.
So what will come of the ever-looming E. globulus trees that blanket the hills above our campus? What should come of them? Is fire prevention our top priority? How do we account for the cultural and environmental implications of removal projects? These questions and others remain hotly debated topics in East Bay counties even today. Alan Shabel sides with the Sierra Club in that E. globulus is here “as a result of a historical error, a colossal error, in human planning” and that it “dominates landscapes, aggressively [excludes] local species from growing, [and poses] an extraordinary fire risk” to the surrounding urban area. Of course, others disagree.
Whichever side you lie on, I believe one thing is clear: compromises must be made and collective action must be taken in order to work towards a solution that satisfies the area’s dire need for fire prevention and accounts for potential impacts on the ecology of removal sites. The wildfires that raged through northern California in early November have certainly sparked new worries around fire hazards in communities all over the state. As California fires continue to ignite in the wake of global climate change, it’s crucial that East Bay residents, environmentalists, and land managers come together to reach a consensus on Eucalyptus globulus and the other non-native species that pervade the Hills — a consensus that implements environmentally sound practices for future fire mitigation.