SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In a win for residents who lost their homes in the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Hills firestorm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed not to fund a fire management strategy to cut down thousands of trees, which detractors said would have actually increased fire risk.
Although the grants to the University of California Berkeley and the city of Oakland to clear-cut and chip 50,000 eucalyptus trees in the East Bay Hills and spread the wood chips up to two feet deep have been terminated under a settlement agreement with citizen's group Hills Conservation Network, they can still move forward with the plan if they secure funding from another source.
"In terms of their concerns, the settlement was certainly acceptable because the problematic projects FEMA was funding are no longer being funded," said Hills Conservation attorney Michael Lozeau.
UC Berkeley, Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District had planned to clear-cut the trees spanning 2,059 acres from the city of Richmond to the area around Lake Chabot in Castro Valley. But Hills Conservation objected particularly to the plan for the UC Berkeley and Oakland areas, which saw a massive wildfire in 1991 that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes.
The group said cutting down the trees would increase fire risk instead of reduce it, and sued in Federal Court to keep the plan from moving forward.
Under the settlement, some of the grant money slated for Oakland will be reallocated to the park district for three existing fire management projects.
Hills Conservation Network has agreed not to challenge the reallocation of those funds or an environmental impact statement related to them as long as the projects are implemented consistent with the settlement. A separate FEMA grant to the park district will remain in place.
FEMA will also pay the citizens' group $90,000 for attorney's fees and related expenses.
On Monday, United States Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler granted a request by Hills Conservation, FEMA, The California Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the park district to dismiss the suit, which UC Berkeley opposed.
In an opposition, the university called the settlement agreement "unenforceable," charging that FEMA didn't comply with federal regulations for terminating its funding and did so without the university's consent.
"FEMA's purported termination of the university's grant funding is illegal and invalid because the university has not consented to the termination," the school said.
As a result of the settlement, UC Berkeley's fire management projects in the hills above the school are on hold until it prepares an environmental impact report.
"It seems like it was not the most conservational route to have gone knowing half the community up there doesn't agree with you," Lozeau said of the university's push to cut down the trees.
Lozeau said Hills Conservation hopes the university will realign its fire management plan with the tree-thinning strategies recommended by wildfire prevention experts while it finalizes the report.
"Sometimes those processes can lead to people discussing other alternatives and those alternatives might seem a little more favorable afterwards depending on the analysis they do under CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act]," Lozeau said.
In its suit, the group said eucalyptus trees reduce fire risk by breaking up strong winds and decreasing flying embers, and complete removal would constitute a "catastrophic site disturbance" that would open up the ecosystem to invasive species.
Also, highly flammable hemlock, thistle, broom and poison oak would take root in clear-cut areas that would need to be sprayed with herbicides to keep them under control, it said. Meanwhile, dry eucalyptus and the oil contained in the wood is highly flammable, so two feet of mulch spread across thousands of acres would actually act as a wildfire propellant.
Hills Conservation said FEMA's environmental impact statement "fails to acknowledge research that highlights the high potential for spontaneous combustion in deeper accumulations of mulch, the difficulty of fire suppression in such fuels, the severe long-term damage to soils by the intense heating in mulch and wood chip fires, and the documented spotting danger posed by mulch and other forms of masticated fuels."
Instead of cutting the trees down completely, the group wants UC Berkeley to thin them out and cut surrounding grasses.
"These proposals to just clear-cut, essentially, and not have a plan as to what happens next, that wasn't acceptable," Lozeau said. "Large trees do not start fires, large trees are good at preventing fires. It's stuff on the ground that starts fires."
Lozeau is with Lozeau Drury in Oakland.
FEMA is represented by Justice Department attorney Cynthia Huber in Washington. She did not return a request for comment.
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