Letter: Grass fires are worse…

We received this letter from “Bewildered in Berkeley” in response to David Maloney’s letter exonerating eucalyptus in the 1991 Oakland fire.

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Thanks for telling us about the Oakland-Berkeley Mayors’ Firestorm Task Force analysis of the cause of the 1991 fire in Oakland. It’s discouraging that there is such a long history of experts such as Mr. Maloney trying to inform the public of the reality of wildfires. All available evidence tells us that wildfires in California cannot be blamed on eucalypts, yet fear of fire continues to be used successfully by native plant advocates to justify the removal of non-native vegetation, especially eucalypts.

The history of such efforts to inform the public goes back even further. In September 1991—just one month before the fire of October 1991 — Alexander “Sandy” Kerr wrote a critique of University of California’s Fire Management Plan of 1986. Sandy Kerr is the son of former UC President, Clark Kerr. When he wrote this report he had been “a wildfire control officer” in Australia for 7 years.

He informed UC that their plans of 1986 for “cutting and treating (poisoning stumps) of 101.5 acres of eucalyptus ‘sprouts’ …to be converted to…grass or grass/coast live oak savanna…” will increase fire hazard. Using actual wildfires in Australia as examples, he explained that grass fires are far larger and more destructive than fires in eucalyptus forest. Drawing upon data from the standard reference on the subject (Bushfires in Australia, Luke and McArthur), he reported that grass fires are hotter, move more quickly, and are more difficult to fight than fires in eucalyptus forest.

Mr. Kerr concluded his report: “A major objective of the ‘Fire’ Management Plan for the UC Hill Area is to re-establish native plants, especially perennial grasses…As a result of their narrow understanding of ecology, the authors of the plan have inadequately considered the likely possibility that neither native plants nor wildlife will benefit from the large-scale conversion from eucalyptus trees… And they have overlooked or downplayed the negative effects of this conversion on important ecosystem functions such as carbon fixation.”

Ironically, Mr. Kerr was prompted to write this critique because the UC President had sent a letter to UC alumni about the dire budgetary situation. The President said, “The help of our alumni and friends is urgently needed, now more than ever.” Had his advice been heeded, UC could have saved a great deal of money.

UC’s budgetary crisis in 1991 pales in comparison to what it faces today, yet it refuses to abandon its plans to destroy the Sutro forest, a waste of money that will also increase the risk of fire.

Why is it necessary to have this debate repeatedly? Why is UC unable to read and comprehend basic information, widely available to anyone with an interest in informing themselves or to observe actual events such as the post-eucalyptus fire on Angel Island? Why is UC so committed to native plants that it is willing to waste scarce resources and put the community at risk? How can UC continue to demand the destruction of healthy trees at a time when it is flat broke? How can UC justify destroying healthy trees, releasing their sequestered carbon into the atmosphere at a time when the disastrous consequences of global warming become more apparent every day? It is truly a mystery.

Bewildered in Berkeley

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The Hills Conservation Network operates in the East Bay to find fire-safety solutions that are cost-effective and not destructive of forests.

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One Response to Letter: Grass fires are worse…

  1. Charlie says:

    two things:

    I’ve SEEN eucalyptus trees go up, they are a terror on fire, even if they are not flammable when healthy they are killed back by periodic frosts causing them to become extremely flammable. This lead to much loss of life and property in the Oakland Hills fire.

    The ‘grass fires’ you are talking about are NOT burning in native grasses and wildflowers which typically have a low fuel load. They are burning in invasive annual grasses and mustard. So you are right it isn’t a native vs non native issue because they things you are comparing are both invasive plants.

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