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FEMA changes course on wildfire hazards

Distribution of more than $5 million in federal funds for wildfire hazard abatement in the Oakland Hills has been delayed to allow time for a more intensive environmental impact review, according to an article in the Oakland Tribune.

The news was a setback for UC Berkeley, the city of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District, which are relying on the grants to remove eucalyptus, pine and acacia trees from steep, wooded canyons and ridges.

UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens told reporter Cecily Burt that the university's plans for reducing the fire hazard were "reasonable." He said that native trees and plants eventually take root in areas where eucalyptus are removed, and the proposed work plan leaves eucalyptus intact in less vulnerable areas.

"When the eucalyptus burn under an east wind, they can throw embers a half-mile or more," Stephens was quoted. "From a fire standpoint, what is being done to remove the eucalyptus is in line with what we want to do (to reduce fire hazards)."

A group called the "Hills Conservation Network" challenged the university's methods for reducing fire hazards by clear-cutting trees and leaving layers of wood chips on the ridges.

The delay, however, leaves the fire hazard unabated for another two years while FEMA studies the environmental impact of the plan.

"Inevitably we will get another east wind and we will have another disaster," Stephens was quoted in the story. "When you look at an area that has already been treated versus what hasn't, the risk is 10 percent greater.  The physics haven't changed. We still have east winds, we have the topography, we have the trees. There will be a disaster."

UC Cooperative Extension has posted extensive information on wildfire hazard abatement on the Web.

A NASA photo of 1991 Oakland Hills fire.
A NASA photo of 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

Posted on Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 10:03 AM
Tags: fire (11), fire safety (5), Scott Stephens (15), wildfire (133)

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