Berkeley’s tree removal aims to ‘set an example’ for wildfire management

Berkeley’s tree removal aims to ‘set an example’ for wildfire management
Berkeley’s tree removal aims to ‘set an example’ for wildfire management

A Berkeley Hills resident engages in defensive space activity by hiring a team to cut down trees on their property. The city of Berkeley now plans to inspect around 8,600 properties for defensible space compliance annually in hillside fire zones, up from about 1,200 inspected in 2021. To prevent wildfire spread, city crews are also cutting down and trimming trees on public property that pose the greatest risk. Credit: Clara Mokri

In an effort to prevent the spread of wildfire, the city of Berkeley has removed almost 300 trees from high-risk fire zones over the past three years. Another roughly 40 trees have been trimmed or cut back.

Most of the trees are blue gum Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine, according to Scott Ferris, Berkeley parks director. Arborists help decide which trees pose the greatest fire risks.

The work is occurring in city parks, paths and street right-of-ways in Berkeley’s two hillside fire zones, which have the highest wildfire risk. This area spans more than 8,000 residential properties.

“Berkeley has an inventory of every tree on city property. They have all been evaluated for health and risk,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose district includes some of the highest-risk fire areas. The city’s tree work, she said, “is essential to creating fuel breaks and safer conditions in the event of wildfire.”

Tree work has occurred at Remillard, Glendale-La Loma, John Hinkel, Codornices, and Cragmont parks, as well as along Wildcat Canyon Road, Cragmont Avenue, and Shasta Road, Ferris said. Trees have also been removed or cut back along several of the city’s hillside paths.

Berkeley’s tree removal aims to ‘set an example’ for wildfire managementChopped trees in Cragmont Rock Park on April 25. A recent city project included the removal of 28 Eucalyptus, six plums, four dead redwoods, three dying Canary Island pines, one pittosporum and one Catalina cherry (which was growing over an adjacent residence). Courtesy: City of Berkeley

The goal, Ferris said, is fuel reduction to “improve defensible space, egress along streets and paths, and to reduce fuel ladders.”

Fuel ladders are low-growing brush, grass, branches or small trees under mature trees that flames easily climb, spreading fire.

“We want to prevent the vertical spread of fire from the more combustible ground fuels from extending up into the tree,” said Chris Pinto, a Berkeley assistant fire chief working with wildfire prevention.

The city’s wildfire tree program is not related to the sudden die-off affecting thousands of trees in the East Bay Regional Park District, Ferris said. The city hasn’t seen a sudden die-off on its lands, he said.

“With all vegetation, combustibility is a main concern,” Pinto said. “Well hydrated, healthy and well maintained trees can be quite fire safe. We prefer to fight fire before it occurs through good vegetation management.”

Tree management — pruning, felling, planting — is a routine responsibility of the city parks department on all city-owned land.

But the focus on wildfire prevention intensified a couple of years ago, helped by funding from Measure FF, an $8.5 million per year emergency services parcel tax passed by voters in 2020, which prioritizes wildland fire response. Concern about wildfire is heightening in Berkeley, along with the rest of the state, fueled by severe drought and an increasing frequency of devastating fires throughout the west — linked by many experts to climate change.

Private property owners shoulder fire risk

Clearing vegetation on public land is only one piece of Berkeley’s efforts to reduce wildfire risk. Many trees, flammable and less so, healthy and less so, well-maintained and less so, grow on private land, in people’s yards. Along with grasses, brush and bushes – tended and wild.

Learn more about protecting your property from wildfire

Enter the city’s defensible space requirements, which also apply to Berkeley’s high-risk hillside fire zones, 2 and 3. (These zones coincide with fire risk zoning used by CalFire, which overseas state wildfire regulations. Many jurisdictions use only CalFire’s zoning; the city designated its own wildfire severity zones years ago, which can get confusing, but the two maps agree on Berkeley’s severity areas.)

Residents in hillside fire zones are required by state law to create defensible space around their homes, or mow, trim, and cut back their vegetation to slow the spread of fire. This includes trimming trees 8 feet up from the ground – removing the ladders.

Defensible space — an increasingly familiar term in wildfire prevention — refers to the ability for firefighters to defend a house or structure. Thinning vegetation and minimizing or removing flammable growth or materials makes it easier and safer for fire crews to fight fire and access buildings.

“Crews need ‘defensible space’ around the structures so they can get in and protect homes,” Pinto said.

Key wildfire response resources

Kate Rauch, a Bay Area native, has been contributing to Berkeleyside for almost 10 years, and in journalism for many more, with a few other interesting gigs along the way.

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