If you're relatively new to the Bay Area, and particularly if you've never lived or spent much time in the East Bay, it will be news to you that a great many people passionately despise the eucalyptus trees that are clustered throughout the Oakland and Berkeley hills, and around the UC Berkeley campus. The bath-shop-scented, stripe-barked, tall beauties, technically called Tasmanian blue gum trees, have elongated leaves that create a pleasant hushed rustling in the breeze. But they are not native to the Bay Area, and they've long been pointed to as a primary culprit in the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991. Many people still love them, have tied themselves naked to their trunks to protect them, and they deny that they have any special flammability and see them as vital habitat for birds and other species. These eucalyptus lovers also don't think that whatever could be planted to replace them will be any less of a fire hazard in what is already a fire-prone region.
The Chronicle's East Bay columnist Chip Johnson came down on the side of "chop them all down" in a 2015 column about the trees, arguing that "human life tops the list" of things we should be worried about preserving. At the time, a project was set to begin with the help of a $4.6 million federal grant to thin the forest along a 20-mile stretch of the East Bay ridgeline, cutting down eucalyptus trees along with diseased or dying Monterey pines and other non-native species.
Johnson quotes a UC Berkeley professor of fire sciences, Scott Stephens, who says the eucalyptus trees are absolutely a hazard even if they aren't close by. He points to the university's effort to clear trees on the upper slopes surrounding the campus because the trees can burn at such high intensity that they can deposit embers more than a mile downslope from them. "Given the conditions of the hills and the vulnerabilities of the people living in the area, it’s the right thing to do," Stephens said, "and the next time we get a great, big fire, we’re going to be happy that we did this."
Shortly after this piece was published and the work was to begin, lawsuits were filed, including one by the Hills Conservation Network to stop the "deforestation" that succeeded in cutting off FEMA funds for tree removal, and the group Save the East Bay Hills launched a website that calls the "thinning" plan a campaign of misinformation, and that FEMA has had plans to clearcut the forests and remove 400,000 trees.
The group argues also that the chopping down of all those trees will actually increase rather than decrease the fire risk in the area. "The plan will not eliminate fire 'fuel load' but instead render it highly flammable," they write. "Healthy, moisture-rich, fire-resistant trees are to be chopped down and chipped, their remains spread about sun-scorched hillsides at a depth of up to two feet, creating carpets of dried out tinder throughout the hills."
The Atlantic delved into this decades-long debate last fall, noting with some amusement, "It is a classic Bay Area dispute: greens vs. greens, experts vs. experts, and committed amateurs vs. committed amateurs."
Also in the fray are people who argue that the fire issue should be set aside, and the trees should be removed because they're not only reaching the end of their natural lives, but the oak-and-grassland ecosystem that predated their presence in the hills should be restored. In that camp sits native plant enthusiast Jake Sigg, who writes this newsletter/blog about issues surrounding SF parks and open spaces. Sigg says he loves the blue gum species and thinks they can be just fine in well-irrigated parks, but not untended in the East Bay Hills.
Even a fire ecologist at the University of Tasmania, where the trees are native, is torn about whether the trees have evolved to be encouragers of fire, or just to withstand fire themselves. He tells the magazine Bay Nature that there's a semi-compelling theory that eucalyptus species evolved "to burn their neighbors," and like some other tree species, eucalyptus trees tolerate fire very well, and rejuvenate quickly.
As of last month, according to Save the East Bay Hills, the City of Oakland's Vegetation Management Department is now conducting an environmental assessment to prepare for the cutting down of some of these trees.
Meanwhile, with those FEMA funds now relegated only to bush clearing, the East Bay Regional Park District is using other funds at its disposal to move forward with tree cutting, but it's unclear how much they've completed thus far. And Oakland's Vegetation Management team will be taking public comment on their plan and Environmental Impact Report to manage trees and vegetation on city-owned lands, with regard to fire safety, and that should be no-doubt lively. Save the East Bay Hills is already saying "the process may be a sham heading to a predetermined conclusion of deforestation."
If you want to keep up with the latest, or join in with your own thoughts, you can follow the pro-tree activists on Facebook, or follow the anti-eucalyptus faction among the local Sierra Club. A video produced by the Sierra Club on the topic of the East Bay hills is below.