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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
get weeds moving in, like French broom, which is extremely difficult
to get rid of and highly flammable when it dries out,” she
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.
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.
is not a sprint,” says Klatt. “It’s going to
be a marathon.”
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.
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.