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Greens See Disaster in Oakland Wildfire Plan

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - FEMA's plan to clear-cut and chip eucalyptus in the hills above UC-Berkeley and spread the wood chips up to 2 feet deep will not reduce fire risk but increase it, a conservation group claims in court.

The Hills Conservation Network sued FEMA, the regents of the University of California, the City of Oakland, the East Bay Regional Park District and the director of the California Office of Emergency Services, on March 6 in Federal Court.

The nonprofit claims that the defendants' Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction plan for the East Bay Hills is ill-advised and illegal.

It involves "clear-cutting of more than 50,000 trees, brush removal, removal of tree limbs, herbicide applications, and other measures intended to reduce fire risk in the East Bay Hills," according to the lawsuit.

The plan covers 2,059 acres, from the city of Richmond to the area around Lake Chabot, but the Conservation Network objects particularly to the plan for the University of California at Berkeley and Oakland areas.

"(C)lear-cutting and chipping of eucalyptus will not achieve the most effective reduction of fire risks in the project areas and instead increases fire risks by disposing of wood chips in layers up to two-feet deep over extensive areas of the project sites," the complaint states.

Eucalyptus wood dries quickly and is full of oil, and burns explosively.

But FEMA's environmental impact statement, which justifies depositing up to 24 inches of mulch from eucalyptus trees, "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," the group says.

"The net effect is essentially trading one fire hazard for another."

Eucalyptus trees actually help reduce fire hazard by breaking up strong winds and reducing hazard from flying embers, and the complete removal of the eucalyptus forest would constitute a "catastrophic site disturbance" that would open up the ecosystem to invasive species, according to the lawsuit.

Also, highly flammable hemlock, thistle, broom and poison oak will take root in clear-cut areas, and they will need to be sprayed frequently with herbicides to be kept under control, the Conservation Network says.

It claims that its alternative plan of selective thinning would be at least as effective a fire prevention method, without as many harmful effects, but that FEMA made the "entirely arbitrary" decision not to consider it.

The Conservation Network claims that when it requested records about the project, FEMA sent it "totally redacted versions" of documents.

The clear-cutting project is slated to begin in August.

The Conservation Network claims that the project will "irreparably harm" the environment.

It claims that the plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. It wants the environmental impact statement and record of decision vacated, and the defendants enjoined from spending any money on the project.

It is represented by Michael Lozeau, with Lozeau Drury, of Oakland.

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