A $4 million federal grant to chop down trees in the ritzy Oakland hills has ignited debate over how best to prevent deadly wildfires in the affluent Northern California region.
Oakland officials and the city's fire department are keen to accept a $4 million federal grant to clear young eucalyptus trees and other plant species not native to the area. They say clearing away the trees and brush will help prevent another deadly firestorm like the one that whipped through the hills in 1991. That fired killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 3,500 homes.
The densely populated and wooded hills in drought-stricken California have long served as a potential fire hazard, especially when hot "diablo'' winds blow. How best to reduce the danger has been a source of heated debate since the 1991 firestorm.
Some residents and environmentalists argue that low-lying brush, so-called "ground fuel,'' is the primary concern rather than the 500,000 eucalyptus trees dotting the hills. Hills Conservation Network, an environmental group, has filed a federal lawsuit to scuttle the tree-cutting project.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and another environment organization filed a lawsuit last week arguing that the tree-cutting plan doesn't go far enough. The Sierra Club wants all of the eucalyptus trees in the region felled and replaced by native plant species. The Sierra Clubs says the trees are highly flammable and were never meant to grow in the area.
The Sierra Club says the trees were introduced in the area a century ago by lumber speculators.
The Oakland City Council is scheduled to consider acceptance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant Tuesday night. Interim City Manager John Flores said state authorities still must conduct and environmental review of the project before the cutting can start.
FEMA's initial proposal was to cut all eucalyptus trees in the area. But the project was scaled back after the agency received 13,000 comments from residents and others. The plan now calls for "thinning'' smaller trees not native to the area over a 10-year period.
FEMA spokeswoman Mary Simms declined comment on the competing lawsuits and the grant proposal.