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

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

In an effort to prevent wildfires from spreading, the city of Berkeley has removed nearly 300 trees from high-risk fire areas over the past three years. About 40 other trees were pruned or cut down.

Most of the trees are blue gum eucalyptus and Monterey pine, according to Berkeley Parks Director Scott Ferris. Arborists help decide which trees pose the greatest fire risk.

Work is taking place in city parks, pathways and street rights-of-way in Berkeley’s two hillside fire zones, which pose the highest wildfire risk. This area spans over 8,000 residential properties.

“Berkeley has an inventory of every tree on city property. They’ve all been assessed for health and risk,” said council member Susan Wengraf, whose district includes some of the most at-risk fire areas. The city’s tree work, she said, “is critical to creating fuel cuts and safer conditions in the event of a wildfire.”

Tree work has taken place in 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 were also removed or cut along several hillside paths in the city.

Cut trees at Cragmont Rock Park on April 25. A recent city project included the removal of 28 eucalyptus trees, six plums, four dead redwoods, three dying Canarian pines, a pittosporum, and a Catalina cherry tree (which grew above an adjacent residence). Courtesy of the City of Berkeley

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

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

“We want to prevent the vertical spread of fire from the most combustible ground fuels from spreading up the tree,” said Chris Pinto, Berkeley Fire Department Assistant Chief working in wildfire prevention.

The city’s wildfire tree program is unrelated to the sudden death affecting thousands of trees in the East Bay Regional Park District, Ferris said. The city has not experienced any sudden mortality on its land, he said.

“With all vegetation, combustibility is a major concern,” Pinto said. “Well-hydrated, healthy, well-maintained trees can be quite safe from fires. We prefer to fight fire before it happens 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 few years ago, helped by funding from Measure FF, an $8.5 million-a-year emergency services package tax passed. by voters in 2020, which prioritizes wildfire response. Wildfire concerns are growing in Berkeley, as well as the rest of the state, fueled by severe drought and an increasing frequency of devastating fires across the west – linked by many experts to climate change.

Private owners assume the risk of fire

Clearing vegetation on public lands is just one part of Berkeley’s efforts to reduce wildfire risk. Many trees, flammable and less, healthy and less good, well maintained and less good, grow on private land, in people’s yards. With grasses, brush and bushes – maintained and wild.

Learn more about protecting your property against wildfires

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 the fire risk zoning used by CalFire , which oversees state wildfire regulations.Many jurisdictions only use CalFire zoning; the city designated its own wildfire severity zones years ago, which may lend confusingly, but both maps agree on Berkeley’s gravity zones.)

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

Defensible space – an increasingly colloquial term in wildfire prevention – refers to the ability of firefighters to defend a home or structure. Thinning vegetation and minimizing or eliminating flammable growth or materials allows fire crews to more easily and safely fight fires and gain access to buildings.

“Crews need ‘defensible space’ around structures to be able to enter and protect homes,” Pinto said.

The basics of defensible space in Berkeley. Credit: Berkeley Fire

The city has some discretion when it comes to requiring the removal of dead trees or other fire hazards on private property, he said.

“Our inspectors examine each tree individually,” Pinto said. “If a tree is correctly located and maintained, whatever the species, we cannot ask for its felling. We would obviously require the removal of a dead tree, especially if it is within 100 feet of the house.

Municipal inspections have been multiplied by 7 this year

Compliance inspections of the city’s defensible space are ongoing, Pinto said, and have expanded since last year as staff numbers grow.

The city now plans to inspect about 8,600 properties per year in Fire Zones 2 and 3, up from about 1,200 inspected in 2021.

The program will run year-round. The first inspections began on May 1 and so far approximately 6,600 properties have been inspected. Owners have 30 days to comply.

This work falls under the Berkeley Fire Department’s new Wildland Urban Interface division, officially created this month and funded by Measure FF. As part of the unit, the defensible space inspection program is about to expand.

The unit includes a team of part-time defensible space inspectors, 13 to date. Longtime Berkeley firefighter Dan Green was recently named the division’s first chief and will start next month.

The City also plans to cut down trees on private land, in agreement with the owners. The city council in April expressed support for this, but it is still at the study stage.

There is currently no financial assistance for private owners who find it difficult to finance the work.

The fire department is working to work with residents to ensure compliance, Pinto said. “We work with owners and are willing to be flexible with the timeframe for compliance where warranted.”

But if a property is non-compliant after 30 days, a second Notice of Violation will be issued with 14 days to comply, with a fee charged for re-inspection.

About 70% of properties pass the initial inspection, Pinto said. After the two-week re-inspection, compliance reaches 90%.

“At the end of the day, we can write a citation or get a reduction warrant. However, we try to resolve all violations through public education and perseverance. We have found that most owners and residents like the program and comply with it.

Defensible space requirements are set to become stricter in the future, with new state laws in the works. This includes the application in 2023 of a new ember resistant defensive zone from the base of buildings up to 5 feet. CalFire is expected to release detailed requirements in the coming months.

The three causes of loss of buildings in forest fires. Credit: University of California Cooperative Extension

One of the biggest obstacles to defensive space is cost. Tree felling and brush clearing are expensive, due to high demand for labor. It can also be dangerous, requiring special equipment and training. For some homeowners, the high price of pruning work is a barrier to clearing flammable conditions.

“It can be an overwhelming and expensive process. Start getting rid of it now,” said David Sprague, Berkeley Fire Deputy Chief.

The city offers a hillside fuel chipper and debris removal program specifically to help with vegetation management in high fire risk areas. See the 2022 program brochure, which includes collection points, on the city’s website.

Wengraf said she hopes the city’s tree program will show residents that Berkeley practices what it preaches.

“The City of Berkeley is a large landowner with beautiful parks scattered across the hills in high fire areas. I think it’s very important for the City to set an example for our community,” she said.

Key Wildfire Response Resources


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

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