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UC Berkeley, backed by local fire agencies, to begin effort to reduce wildland fire risk in hills above the campus
29 Aug 2000

By Janet Gilmore, Media Relations

  fire hazard treatment area
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Berkeley - Aiming to avert a repeat of the deadly 1991 Oakland Hills fire, University of California, Berkeley, officials and area fire agencies are launching an extensive fire prevention effort to protect homes and hillsides in the Panoramic Hill area above the campus.

The $400,000 project is funded by the campus, the state Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The project, which will involve extensive pruning and the removal of trees and brush, has the support of the East Bay Regional Parks District, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the Berkeley Fire Department, the Oakland Fire Department and the California Department of Forestry.

"Fuel reduction projects of this type are an extremely important element in helping to prevent large, damaging fires in urban wildland areas," said Steven F. Woodill, chief of the California Department of Forestry's Santa Clara Ranger Unit, which covers Alameda and Contra Costa counties. "CDF and the Diablo Firesafe Council are very supportive of projects of this type."

On Sept. 5, work crews are scheduled to begin to thin trees and remove overgrown brush in the Panoramic Hill area, reducing the risk of wildfires and providing firefighters with the open space needed to set up trucks and battle any wildland fires that should occur.

The Panoramic Hill area is between Panoramic Way and Centennial Drive. It is bounded by residential neighborhoods to the west, the Grizzly Peak area to the east, Claremont Canyon to the south and Strawberry Canyon to the north.

In all, crews will fell 840 of the approximately 2,400 trees in the area and prune tree trunks - steps that will lessen the risk of fire climbing up trees and allowing burning embers to fall from treetops to homes in neighborhoods below in the Panoramic Hill area and Elmwood district.

The board of directors of the Panoramic Hill Association, which represents neighbors in that area, endorsed the fire prevention project.

"Disastrous wildfires moved into Berkeley in 1923, 1970, 1984, and 1991," said resident Dick White. "We clearly need buffer zones where approaching wildfires can be fought. As a resident of Panoramic Hill, where our houses adjoin Strawberry Canyon, I'm delighted to see the start of this university-FEMA project."

The 1991 Oakland Hills fire destroyed more than 3,200 homes and caused 25 deaths.

Carroll Williams, a UC Berkeley adjunct professor of forestry who has been working with local agencies on the Panoramic Hill project, said eucalyptus trees and Monterey pine trees allowed burning embers to jump from treetops to homes during the 1991 firestorm.

Both eucalyptus bark and leaves are aerodynamic and burning embers from these materials - along with Monterey pine needles and paper - were the primary factors in spreading fire from the woodlands to nearby homes during that fire, Williams said.

Many of the trees in the Panoramic Hill project area are Monterey pines.

"The lifespan for Monterey pines is 60 to 80 years," said Williams. "Many of the Monterey pines in the Panoramic Hill area have reached their lifespan. They're now in the process of falling apart. With these elderly trees, the area is a fairly high hazard area."

Trees in the project area include several varieties of the conifer species. These non-native trees, which also include cedar, Douglas fir and other trees, were planted during the 1920s and 1930s for teaching and research purposes. They are no longer used for study.

The 30-acre Panoramic Hill area is considered high-risk not only because of the type of trees there. Wind and geographic conditions there can produce a setting ripe for wildfires, according to Jim Horner, the project manager and campus landscape architect.

Overgrown brush on other university land has been managed by crews that remove the brush by hand, or by goats brought in to eat away excess vegetation.

The Panoramic Hill project will be completed in three phases with 540 trees felled during the first phase, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 5 and conclude by Oct. 15. Later phases will begin in the spring or summer with the project completed by fall 2001.

University officials have alerted neighbors about the project which, for safety reasons, will entail the closure of the Lower Jordan Fire Trail and the parking area at the intersection of that trail and Centennial Drive. As with any such tree-felling project, the job will entail large work crews, heavy trucks and associated noise.

Crews are scheduled to work Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hauling will not occur during peak traffic hours.

Simonis Logging and Construction of Palo Cedro will fell the trees, cut them into 24-foot logs and truck them out of town. Wood will be donated to Protect All Life, a nonprofit organization based in Half Moon Bay that recycles lumber for artistic projects.



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