OAKLAND — Nine years and 13,000 public comments later, the federal government has decided that thinning eucalyptus trees in the East Bay hills instead of cutting them all down is the correct way to help prevent a repeat of the 1991 firestorm.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week ended its environmental review process for $5.67 million in grant applications from Oakland, UC Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Park District for tree and vegetation management.
The announcement caps a debate among residents and firefighters over whether it is better to remove all the highly flammable eucalyptus and nonnative trees in the hills or just some of them.
But in the end, FEMA said much of the weight of the decision was on preserving habitat for animals in the hills in addition to removing vegetation.
“We have to be responsible stewards for the animals as well,” said Jeff Lusk, director of hazard mitigation at the FEMA Oakland office. “It is about thinning appropriately while not completely removing the habitat where sensitive species live. We had to determine the happy point where we could reduce fire risk and maintain the habitat for animal species.”
The red-legged frog and the Alameda whipsnake are a couple of those, he said.
If the grant comes through and there are no lawsuits blocking the grants, Oakland will get some much needed fire prevention relief, said fire Chief Theresa Deloach Reed, who started the job in 2012.
“I think this is going to be great for Oakland,” Deloach Reed said. “We’ve been waiting a really long time for it.”
Deloach Reed said Oakland’s portion of the grants, $3 million, will allow the city to draw up a comprehensive plan to cut back trees and bushes in the hills. Until now, the city has removed only low-lying vegetation and some dead trees, but it hasn’t done any wholesale thinning of trees.
“Eucalyptus trees are very dangerous,” Deloach Reed said. “I think thinning is a start, and it will allow us to prevent the spread of fire from tree to tree that happens so quickly.”
The end of the environmental review process starts an internal 30-day review within FEMA that will determine if the government will award the grants, Lusk said. If approved, the money should be released after that, he said.
If the grants are awarded, Oakland will get the largest portion, East Bay Regional Park District will receive about $2.2 million, and UC Berkeley will get about $500,000.
Tim Wallace, of Berkeley, who is president of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, didn’t like the decision because it leaves the eucalyptus trees in the hills.
“Thinning will never take care of the issue,” Wallace said. “It gets you into a perpetual public cost because it requires the removal of underbrush and leaves the eucalyptus there. They will continue to grow and drop acid on the native bushes below, which kills them. So what you have left is a eucalyptus plantation.”
Sal Genito, associate director of grounds at UC Berkeley, which has about 400 acres of land in the hills the FEMA grant would be used on, said all the entities that applied for grants will have to follow the same rules if they plan to use the money.
“The new approach does leave some of the eucalyptus in place,” Genito said. “We don’t have a choice. Everybody has to follow the same rules.”
In some areas of land it owns, UC Berkeley has been cutting down all the eucalyptus trees, Genito said.
Dan Grassetti, of Oakland, who represents the Hills Conservation Network, an organization that has been fighting the idea of clear-cutting in the hills and a group that believes eucalyptus trees are not as flammable as many say, was cautiously optimistic about FEMA’s decision to publish its environmental review.
“In general, the decision to not allow radical clear-cutting is a good thing,” Grassetti said. “The process of getting to fire mitigation is not nearly as disastrous as was proposed earlier. But we’re still concerned about the number of trees that would be cut down.”
He said eucalyptus trees have been “scapegoated” in the past by fire department officials who say they are one of the worst fire hazards in the hills.
“We had an independent third-party expert do an analysis on what the risks are and how to mitigate them, and there is a general agreement that ground fuels are the biggest problem and not tall trees,” Grassetti said. “Bay trees are particularly problematic.”
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.