$4 million fire-prevention grant ignites passions in Oakland

Jun 3, 2015, 1:07 PM

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — City officials accepted a $4 million federal grant to chop down trees in the ritzy Oakland hills, a decision that ignited debate over how best to prevent deadly wildfires in the affluent Northern California region.

The Oakland City Council voted to approve the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant after 2 a.m. Wednesday. The city and its fire department say clearing young eucalyptus trees and other non-native plants would deter another deadly firestorm like the one that whipped through the hills in 1991. That blaze killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 3,500 homes.

The densely populated and wooded hills in drought-stricken California have long served as a potential fire hazard, especially when hot “diablo” winds blow. How best to reduce the danger has been a source of heated debate since the 1991 firestorm.

Some residents and environmentalists argue that low-lying brush, so-called ground fuel, is the primary concern rather than the 500,000 eucalyptus trees dotting the hills. Hills Conservation Network, an environmental group, has filed a federal lawsuit to scuttle the tree-cutting project.

Dan Grassetti, president of the network, said the public is “outraged that elected officials ignored Oakland residents” who oppose the project.

Peter Gray Scott, the group’s co-founder, said their lawsuit will move forward.

“Science and the facts are on our side,” he said. “Our goal is species-neutral fire-risk mitigation that actually makes the citizens of Oakland safer.”

The Sierra Club and another environmental organization sued last week, but argued that the tree-cutting plan does not go far enough. The Sierra Club wants all the eucalyptus trees in the region toppled and replaced by native plants, saying the trees are highly flammable and were never meant to grow in the area.

The group says lumber speculators introduced the trees a century ago.

Before the tree-cutting begins, state authorities must conduct an environmental review, Oakland interim City Manager John Flores said.

The federal government initially wanted to cut all eucalyptus trees in the area. But the project was scaled back after FEMA received 13,000 comments from residents and others. The plan now calls for “thinning” smaller non-native trees over a 10-year period.

FEMA spokeswoman Mary Simms declined to comment on the competing lawsuits and the grant.

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$4 million fire-prevention grant ignites passions in Oakland