Only you can prevent wildfires: write FEMA by June 17, 2013

If you’d like to prevent another wildfire, I encourage you to write FEMA or go to the meeting tomorrow, May 18th at 10 am – see for details on where to send a letter and meeting place.

A great deal is known about wildfires in the East Bay hills.

After every major fire (there have been 15 major wildfires between 1923 and 1992), a blue ribbon commission was appointed and produced excellent reports on what needed to be done.  We know from the 1982 and 1995 commission reports that the eucalyptus, pine, and acacia have to be removed, how to go about it, and which native species to replace them with.  Native oaks, redwoods, and other trees are far less fire-prone, and when they do burn, create far less catastrophic fires.

There has also been an extremely knowledgeable and hardworking wildfire prevention district since 1991.

The Claremont Canyon conservancy has an excellent website about the history of wildfire in our area and what needs to be done.  They’ve teamed up with professors and wildfire experts at the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, and other institutions to try to prevent wildfires in the future:

Many of the people in my neighborhood now moved in after the 1991 wildfire that burned down 3500 homes.  Those of us who lived through it never want to see it happen again.  You will spend up to five years fighting the insurance company to get paid (see my book review of “Delay, Deny, Defend” for details at, and at least two years to get your house rebuilt and furnished.

Back in 1991, dozens of us had gone through CORE training in the Rockridge Terrace area, many of us all the way through CORE IV, and so we knew we needed to get out.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons no one died in our neighborhood.  But we lost 97 of 100 homes on Contra Costa Road, and many more homes on Buena Vista and Golden Gate avenue as well.

History of wildfires in East Bay Hills

Between 1923 and 1992, 15 major wildfires occurred in the East Bay Hills of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, California.

• These 15 fires burned about 9,000 acres, destroyed more than 3,500 homes, and killed 26 people.

• Among these fires, the 1923 Berkeley Fire destroyed over 600 homes in an hour.

• The 1970 fire consumed over 200 acres and burned 37 homes.

• The 1991 Tunnel Fire killed 25 people, destroyed approximately 3,400 homes and did an estimated $1.5 billion in damages.


Eucalyptus trees are the largest problem.  They have oily bark and leaves which can aerodynamically spread fires one to six miles ahead of the main flame front, and as far as 18 miles ahead (Cheney 1981, McCaw, L. et al. 1992, Stretton 1939).

That’s why our homes burned down in 1991 – eucalyptus can easily jump 8 lanes of freeway plus Lake Temescal.

Eucalyptus are the most likely kind of tree to cause the worst possible kind of fire — a crown fire, which travels three to eight times as fast as a ground fire.  And crown fires cause the worst spotting, exploding with firebrands, as happened in the Oakland hills fire of 1991 where the “wide dispersal of firebrands contributed significantly to the rapid and extensive spread of the fire” (Bradley 1995).

Eucalyptus are especially prone to crown fire because their bark and leaves are imbued with flammable oils that ignite easily, and the shape of the tree — an open crown — creates updrafts which lift the fiery bark and ground litter up into the hanging branches (USDA Forest Service).

Another reason to get rid of eucalyptus is that they evolved to not only cope well with fire, but are so good at it, that after a fire, their range spreads.  They are the most adapted to fire of any tree in the world, that’s why Australia is covered with them.   Many species of trees in Australia can only exist where it’s too wet for wildfires or too cold for eucalyptus to survive.


Eucalyptus trees poison the soil with terpenes and phenolic acids that make it hard for other plants to grow.  There’s very little, if any, understory vegetation in eucalyptus stands in California (USDA). So even if you get rid of a eucalyptus tree, one is likely to come back in that spot.

I think a good monster movie could be made with eucalyptus as the villain.  They are awfully hard to kill.  They have four different ways of reproducing if burned or cut down: heat-resistant seed capsules, sprouting from the stump, sprouting from the lignotuber, or sprouting from the roots (USDA).

I’ve been a naturalist for 50 years, and volunteer to take inner city children on hikes at Audubon Canyon Ranch.  I’ve hiked thousands of miles of Bay Area trails.  One thing I’ve always noticed is how silent, dead, eucalyptus groves are.  Nothing moves and nothing lives there. This is because eucalyptus is not native, so very few of the local species can use them for food or homes (1995 Fire Hazard Mitigation Program).

Worse yet, eucalyptus can harm native species. Many birds are coated with a tarry pitch when they seek nectar.  In Australia, birds have evolved nostrils far away from their bills to cope, here bird nostrils can get clogged, killing the bird from suffocation, according to Rich Stallcup of PRBO conservation science.

In closing, I’d like to remind you that in Australia, eucalyptus has always been, and always will be a scourge.   In 1976, one in ten rural Australians was part of a volunteer bush fire brigade.

Let’s not let eucalyptus take over the ecology of California, or we’ll have fires like the Ash Wednesday fire in South Australia, 1983, that burned 1350 square miles and killed 71 people.  Fire tornadoes rose 410 yards into the air. Survivors described the sound of the fire burning as a “deafening metallic roar that was terrifying and disorienting”.  The smoke was so thick and the fire so fast, escape routes couldn’t be seen and were cut off.  Water pumps stopped working as the fire severed electric lines.


1982 “Report of the blue ribbon urban interface fire prevention committee”.

1995 “Fire Hazard Mitigation Program & Fuel Management Plan for the East Bay Hills”

Bradley, Gordon A. 1995. “Urban Forest Landscapes: Integrating Multidisciplinary Perspectives.”  University of Washington Press.

Cheney, N.P. 1981. Fire Behaviour. In “Fire and the Australian Biota.” Editors A.M. Gill, R.H. Groves & I.R. Noble. Australian Academy of Science. Canberra pp 151-176

FEMA project Fact Sheet. april 1, 2013. East Bay Hills Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

National Park Service.  september 2006. “Managing Eucalyptus”

U.S. Department of the Interior. Golden Gate National Recreation Area

McCaw, L. et al. 1992. Extreme wildfire behaviour in 3-year-old fuels in a Western Australian mixed Eucalyptus forest. Western Australian Dept. of Conservation and Land Management, Manjimup)

O’Brien, Bill.  2005. Ubiquitous Eucalyptus. “How an Aussie Got Naturalized”. Bay Nature

Pyne, Stephen J. 1991. “Burning Bush. A Fire History of Australia”. Henry Holt.

Stretton, Leonard. E. B.   Royal Commissioner Judge describing the 1939 “Black Friday” fire that consumed millions of acres in Australia

“The speed of the 1939 fire as apalling…lighting forests 6 or 7 miles in advance of the main fires…balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires, consuming with a roaring, explosive noice, all that they touched.  Great pieces of burning bark were carried by the wind to set in raging flame regions not yet reached by the fires.

USDA FOREST SERVICE. Fire effects information page


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