by Georgia Wright, HCN Boardmember
The California Dept. of Parks & Recreation (aka California State Parks) decided to “restore” Angel Island to its “native” flora—and reduce fire danger—by cutting down thousands of so-called “non-native” eucalyptus trees (Eucalyptus globulus) planted decades earlier by the military for windbreaks, beautification, timber, and erosion control. By the mid-1980s, the eucalyptus had grown to cover 86 acres. Experts from UC Berkeley were called in to calculate the effect that converting forest into grassland—deforestation—would have on wildlife and its habitat.
They tested the soil and noted that the last controlled fire in the forest, used to clear bark and undergrowth, had been set four years earlier. Finally, in 1996, the project was approved and thousands of trees were cut down, leaving only those few growing near historic buildings on the periphery of the island. Herbicides were sprayed on plants including Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus), Ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis) and French broom (Genista monspessulana). Hand clearing was done by prisoners.
Scrub oak and bay, some planted, grew, starting from the northern tip of the island, delighting the Park Service. But in 2004, eight years after the removal of the eucalyptus forests, the first wildfire occurred, burning 1.5 acres. One year later, in 2005, twenty-five additional acres burned. Finally, on October 12, 2008, a third and much larger fire, driven by fierce north winds, swept flames from the grasses into the new oak/bay woods—and in two days incinerated 380 acres of vegetation. This was over half the island’s 740 acres. The six acres of eucalyptus trees left standing around the buildings survived the fire.
Without the fog drip created by the former 100-year-old eucalyptus forest, the oak/bay scrub had dried out. And during the fire, winds fanned the wildfire’s flames without the windbreak created by the trees. Massive efforts by firefighters from fire boats, and air drops of water and fire retardant were ineffective in extinguishing the fire until the winds subsided.
What was billed in part as a “native plant restoration” project became instead a demonstration of how forests suppress wildfire. Regardless of tree species, forests are much less easily ignited than fast-burning grasslands favored by “native” plant advocates. Even eucalyptus trees, often erroneously labeled “flammable” by “native” plant advocates provide substantially greater resistance to wildfire than “native” vegetation that grows or is planted in the place of felled mature trees.
Angel Island Fires: A Case Study in Eucalyptus Removal
A Case Study in Eucalyptus removal
"Restored" Angel Island plants burned uncontrollably, while trees didn't ignite.