Oakland City Council votes to accept controversial FEMA grant

Bay City News
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
eucalyptus trees in Oakland
The FEMA plan to remove thousands of eucalyptus, pines or acacias trees from the East Bay hills has become a hot topic. (KGO-TV)

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Oakland City Council voted unanimously early Wednesday morning to accept a $4 million federal grant to reduce fire danger by thinning trees in the Oakland Hills, the site of a 1991 blaze that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes.

Oakland vegetation management supervisor Vincent Crudele said the city will match the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant with nearly $900,000 in wildfire prevention funds that the city previously set aside for cutting trees to reduce the fire danger in the hills.

The council approved the tree removal plan in a 7-0 vote -- Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan was absent -- early Wednesday morning even though it's opposed by the Sierra Club and the Hills Conservation Network, a group of homeowners in the area that was devastated by the 1991 blaze.

Both groups have filed lawsuits seeking to stop the tree-cutting plan, alleging that its environmental impact statement is flawed.

Crudele said the city plans to use the grant money to thin eucalyptus trees in two areas: a 53-acre area west of the Caldecott Tunnel, which is near the origin of the 1991 fire, and a 66-acre section along Grizzly Peak Boulevard.

He said the project's environmental impact statement has been approved by federal regulators but it must still pass California Environmental Quality Act guidelines.

Crudele said that process could take six months to a year and the city hopes that once it gets final approval, it can begin cutting down eucalyptus trees in fall 2016 and replacing them with native trees such as oak trees and bay trees.

The plan calls for workers to thin trees for three years and spend another two years managing fuels from trees in order to minimize the fire danger, Crudele said.

Hills Conservation Network board member Dan Grassetti said on Tuesday that he and other members object to the tree-cutting plan because of concerns about herbicides potentially contaminating groundwater, the increased risk of landslides and the potential threat to raptors' habitats.

Grassetti also said he thinks the plan to remove eucalyptus and pine trees will lead to a rapid increase in invasive brush species such as broom trees, thistle, hemlock and poison oak, which he said pose a greater fire threat.

Grassetti said he's hopeful the plan will be stopped in the courts.