Flame and Fortune: It’s trees vs. fire in an attempt to get ahead of California’s pending summer of smoke

Trees provide shade during heat waves, sequester CO2, filter groundwater and have shown to reverse desertification in Burkina Faso. Yet approaching the 30th Anniversary of the Tunnel fire—that’s the state’s name of the 1991 Oakland and Berkeley Hills fire—many trees, to some survivors, are the adversary.

It’s not just because trees require more water and care in the first three years of life that Gordon Piper says more should be eradicated from drought-stricken Northern California. Even though trees absorb wind before they reach their crucial 40th year—when fire-resistant bark forms—Piper sees a problem. 

Piper envisions this area’s future like he imagines its past, “desert-like” he said, before developers 100 years ago planted thousands of eucalyptuses. Even with the Bay’s foggy microclimate, “plant communities won’t have the water” to sustain themselves. He’s certain the aridity will grow.

Piper and his wife lost their home in the Tunnel fire. But he’s no desert-aspirational outlier.

Headlines abound this summer of acacia die-offs and Bark-beetle stricken trees in East Bay parks, or on Bay Area campuses. It’s not a tree panic epidemic, but it’s spreading.

Nancy Hughes, executive director of California Urban Forests Council, witnessed a reforestation event in post-fire Santa Rosa where some homeowners remain “terrified of trees.” Hughes said they’re getting bad information.

Hughes’ council is run by grants flowing from CAL-FIRE, which she described as a “monster” because it’s such a large state institution. Added Hughes, “CAL-FIRE is not their real name.”

CAL-FIRE will receive the billion dollars recently pledged by a governor facing a Sept. 14 recall election, and who faced criticism on public radio for under-funding it earlier this year. This pledge should fund 35 fuel reduction priority projects CAL-FIRE designed in 2019. Priority Project #5 sprawls across 26,270 acres of the East Bay, draping San Pablo Ridge and overlapping tracts of dense suburbia stretching from El Cerrito into Richmond.

Hughes wouldn’t pinpoint where the bad information leading to tree terror comes from. The dreaded “media” is both a favorite scapegoat and likely culprit. Piper points reporters to a Tunnel fire video of an exploding pine.

But that same media—viewed comprehensively by some during quarantine—lead to questions about the urgent pleas for tree “thinning” deep in parks and forests.

It’s worth ignoring the pyrocumulonimbus clouds hovering the Oregon-California Bootleg and California-Nevada Dixie fires to consider the following:

In the 13th season of the popular CBS reality competition Survivor: Cook Islands, won by the Bay’s Yul Kwon, Becky and Sundra faced off in an infamous fire-starting challenge in order to break a late-season tie vote. In the albeit tropical nighttime heat, with conspicuous sweat, both contestants struck and re-struck their magnesium blocks, sailing past the one-hour chyron clock. Both contestants drew from flint bushels occasional flares, which they failed to sustain as cast members in the jury nodded off in boredom. Host Jeff Probst hastened the show past a ratings hazard by ordering them to use matches. A book of 24, for Sundra, was useless in fire-starting, too—tragic, given her strong social game. The diameters of her teepee sticks appeared simply too thick.

The segment’s a reminder that fires start from the little things, which home-hardening advocates remind us of.

“Home-hardening” is a term for measures taken to minimize likelihood of fire destruction within a Home Ignition Zone. The other phrase heard in tandem is “defensible space,” which this article expands on later.

The Survivor segment also points to wind as a flare-growing necessity. Sundra and Becky blew repeatedly on their nascent flint embers, but no growing flare could overcome the handmade teepees’ canopies, which snuffed all flames of oxygen.

Blocking small-diameter embers from wedging between tiles on a roof, or into cracks in eaves, makes a residence less likely to ignite. Such guards make “ember casts”—what Brentwood Fire Marshal Steve Aubert calls the broadcast of firebrands leading the “head of the fire”—less likely to travel inside a house or structure. Embers, glowing splinters of carbon-carrying matter, are often the culprits resulting in property destruction.

Surely the CAL-FIRE windfall will trickle down to aid home and structure retrofitting.

“I want people to have a nonflammable roof,” said former United States Department of Forestry employee Jack Cohen from his home in Missoula, Montana. “It doesn’t have to be metal or tile.”

But CAL-FIRE, a 2007 re-branding name for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), focuses on vegetation. What Cohen didn’t say was that CDF hasn’t funded retrofitting, like fiberglass-asphalt composite tile to replace the wood shake roofs visible last week along those verdant suburban tracts baking beneath transmission towers.

AB38, in what could be a eulogy for the upwardly mobile, mandates that homeowners outside “underserved community” census tracts pay to replace their own fire-prone roofs as a condition of sale.

Like a fire skipping to the next tree crown in a stand, Cohen cited more examples from the big U.S. fires by year and name. He studies where ignition chains stop and start.

Cohen listed trees from past fires of the federally defined Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), which marbles the inner East Bay. The 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego left a eucalyptus standing next to a levelled home. Cohen classified eucalyptus as a high-maintenance “trophy tree” which smells nice and is slow to ignite, that continuously sheds flammable bark peel litter requiring cleanup. “You have to work for it” if you want to avoid fire and keep a eucalyptus in your yard.

Cohen attended a Tahoe community meeting following the 2007 Angora fire, where a resident called for bulk tree removal to prevent repeat events. “The only trees that burned were immediately adjacent to and over burned houses,” Cohen said—flaming houses ignited the trees.

Those Tahoe houses point back to the topic of ignition-resistant homes.

“Home-hardening and defensible space are different things,” Susan Piper said. She’s chair of the Oakland Fire Safe Council and lost her home in the Tunnel fire, which took 25 lives. She’s married to Gordon.

“Defensible space is about tree-trimming” and vegetation management. Home-hardening is about architecture, joint gaps and construction materials.

Legislation to permit more accessory dwelling unit construction pending in Sacramento under SB9 and SB10 could be exempted in many areas for disingenuous HIZ reasons if we don’t get these terms straight. 

The hazard of chain ignition between a home and its ADU is increased if the accessory unit is within the defined “defensible space” for that area, Susan Piper said, and should remove some East Bay parcels from SB9 and SB10. But defensible space refers to vegetation, not construction.

Sen. Nancy Skinner has declared opposition to ADU construction in “very high fire hazard severity zones,” which are defined by that monster of influence, CAL-FIRE a.k.a. CDF. Some are urging Skinner’s colleagues to preclude the next level down, merely “high fire hazard severity zones” leaving Ohlone burial grounds in the two remaining zones on which to build.

CDF plans for Gov. Newsom’s pledge to fund fire-prevention fuel treatments such as prescribed burning and “thinning.” Prescribed burning, which East Bay Regional Parks conducted this year in spots like San Pablo Reservoir before April, consume what Cohen calls “duff,” the small-diameter tree-carbon matter like tree-bark peelings. Duff ignites easily and flares long enough to grow into a real fire, unlike Sundra’s sad teepee.

Forest “thinning” is bundled into big jobs performed by commercial loggers along with public forest harvesting, which the USFS has overseen on federally owned forests since its inception. But, lumber will be used to construct badly needed housing, and foresters walk a fine political line balancing pressure from commercial loggers and conservationists.

And foresters must draw better performance from federal groves than ever before: President Trump’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt declared biomass—wood briquettes—a carbon-neutral energy source. Pruitt’s successor under Biden let that ruling stand.

Susan Piper leads a pilot project to remove trees from Kaiser Elementary School in the WUI, because those contiguous pine branches are not properly spaced and form an ignition chain “wall.” 

And without prompting, Piper said home-hardening is important. She urges people to ensure some allotted state monies also help municipalities outside CDF’s purview, like East Bay Regional Parks, so they can pay to cut down and remove the dead trees far from roads. Given dead tree logs are too large in diameter to comprise duff, it’s unclear those measures are necessary.

Oakland, which Piper said has only one tree crew on staff, won’t directly see any funding from Newsom’s billion-dollar fire-prevention pledge.  Luckily for East Oakland kids with asthma, the leaves of those coastal oaks rising from the 73rd-and-Bancroft traffic meridian, which filter from the air particulates like wildfire smoke, are tended by contractor arborist Gordon Matassa through Hughes.

CBS reality players proved more competent at subsequent fire challenges. “Sarah v. Tony,” in the penultimate episode of the 40th season of Survivor: Winners at War, still took time to break the tie vote. But they needed no matches from Probst, because they built thinned-wood teepees, using small-diameter sticks. Tony simulated wind to swell a big-enough blaze to win a spot before the final jury, which awarded him the $2 million all-star prize.

May all Bay denizens take something from the Sarahs, Tonys and both Pipers, and pause long enough to ask: might it pay to prioritize our trees?

AJ Fish
A.J. Fish is a Bay Area freelance reporter.
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