SF Fire Department Busts Some Myths

Deputy Fire Chief Mark Gonzales smRecently, Supervisor Norman Yee called a hearing of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee to find out how prepared San Francisco was to deal with fires in brush and forest. The San Francisco Fire Department busted some myths we’ve heard all too often.

MYTH #1:  The forests of San Francisco – in particular those on Mount Sutro and Mount Davidson – are a fire hazard.  Vegetation fires are 12-13 times more likely to occur in grass and brush than in forests. And importantly –  in the north and west of the city, the fog protects it by adding moisture. The south-east is more vulnerable to vegetation fires, particularly around the freeways. (But the real fire danger in San Francisco is from structure fires because of closely-placed wooden houses, not so much from vegetation fires.)

MYTH #2: As city fire-fighters, SFFD wouldn’t know how to respond to a forest fire. Actually, SFFD have 200 fire-fighters trained to fight vegetation fires. This myth is a quarter-century out of date.

MYTH #3: SFFD doesn’t have the equipment or information to fight vegetation fires. Actually,  SFFD has special resources including four maneuverable “mini-pumpers” for fighting outside fires. And it has a mutual aid agreement with other cities and can call on their resources if needed.

MYTH #4: San Francisco’s Wildland Urban Interface is a very high fire hazard severity zone. No, it’s not. It’s not technically a Wildland Urban Interface (though there are some pockets) and the whole of San Francisco has a “moderate” fire hazard severity rating (that’s CALFIRE’s lowest rating).

We attended the hearing, and were impressed by SFFD’s well-planned arrangements. After an introduction from Supervisor Norman Yee who convened the hearing and Fire Chief Joanna Hayes-White who stressed that SFFD was prepared for vegetation fires, Deputy Chief Mark Gonzales gave a detailed presentation on where they happened and how SFFD handled it. This was followed by a talk about  prevention from Lieutenant Mary Shea, (mainly weed-abatement in vacant lots and similar). The Department of Emergency Services’ Bijan Karimi  described preparedness,  to help affected families stay safe and return to normalcy in the event of any disaster. Then Curtis Itson, UCSF’s fire marshal, spoke specifically about Sutro Forest, and finally there were some comments from the public – including a singer!


San Francisco’s main concern is actually more with structure fires, because as Deputy Chief Gonzales said,  “…we have wood buildings in the districts, and they’re all next to each other.”

However, there are some calls for outside fires. They tend to be concentrated around the south and east of the city. Because of the fog, the north and west of the city (i.e., areas that include Mount Sutro Forest and Mount Davidson) are generally moist and not a concern. The focus for outside fires is in the drier South east part of San Francisco: Hunter’s Point, McLaren Park.

grass and outside fire calls - SFFD

From the presentation by Deputy Chief Mark Gonzales:

“… we have fog and even during the drought the rest of the city, the west and the northwest gets the fog. The best weather is in Hunters Point, southeast, so that’s where it’s driest.  One of the concerns is Mclaren park.  So the four mini-pumpers are in that area. We have front line stations in the city.  A lot of those companies have been trained in wild land operations, and the chief mentioned that we have over 200 firefighters that do that.”

The open weedy area around freeways are also a concern. Thrown cigarettes and occasional campfires may account for ignition. He said: “…actually there is a big correlation if you noticed near the freeways… all along and open patches of lands that we respond to, to knock those out.”

When there are vegetation fires, they are mostly in grass and brush. The data the Deputy Fire Chief showed indicated that in the last three years,  fires in grassland and/or brush were 12-13 times more likely than fires in forested areas/ wild lands.

He also pointed out that SFFD did have the resources to fight vegetation fires:

  • Four “mini-pumpers” – small maneuverable trucks for fighting outside fires (as well as operating in crowded conditions). They can go off-road and carry special equipment for fighting vegetation fires.
  • Two hundred firefighters with training in fighting vegetation fires, unlike 20-25 years ago when it had few if any. In fact, 30 of SFFD’s people were deployed to help fight the Butte fire and the Valley fire in other parts of California.
  • There’s a mutual aid arrangement in place that would allow SFFD to call for help if it faced an outside fire it could not control with its own resources. The people it would call on would be at least as well-trained as SFFD’s own fire-fighters – possibly more so because they are from hotter less built-up areas where they experience more outside fires.


Lieutenant Mary Shea, who is responsible for Prevention, started by pointing out that San Francisco was not technically considered a Wildland-Urban interface, though there were pockets that appeared so.  She also said that based on topography and fuel, CALFIRE considered San Francisco a moderate fire hazard area, not a high fire hazard zone. [“Moderate” is actually CALFIRE’s lowest rating.]

 not WUI fire area
Her prevention efforts therefore  focused on overgrowth of weeds, grass and vines,  30-foot defensible spaces, tree-limbs within 10 feet of chimney outlet, buildup of leaves or pine needles on roofs.

SFFD weed abatement program

They mainly responded to complaints from neighbors, perhaps half of which were justified and the remainder were people disgruntled with the next-door tree overhanging their house or yard. They usually sent out abatement notices two weeks before 4th of July. Owners usually complied and most yards were well-maintained – the owners didn’t want fires, either. The main problem was in abandoned properties where the neighbor could not be found, or people unable for some reason to maintain their homes. SFFD worked with such cases to ensure safety. Most notices came from Hunters Point/ Bayview around the freeways, and Bernal, places like that.

Chief Joanna Hayes-White praised UCSF for the “fire safety” work 2 years ago, and they said they would be reviewing it this fall. She talked about defensible space and fuel reduction.

UCSF’s  fire marshall, Curtis Itson, emphasized that UCSF has a commitment to keep buildings, visitors, and nearby neighborhoods safe.

In comments, we pointed out that given the fog and the way the vegetation trapped moisture, we needed to be careful that we did not increase fire hazard by reducing the forest’s ability to retain moisture.

More important public comments:

  • In the parks and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, native plant interests are felling trees and substituting more-flammable native plants for fire-resistant non-natives like trees and ice-plant. These landscape transformations increase fire hazard.
  • Trees are a lot less flammable than the myths say. In the parks,  trees are felled and left on the ground as fuel, while toxic herbicides are in use. SFRPD’s forest management needs improvement.
  • Someone  talked about dying trees as fire hazards along O’Shaughnessy, and a singer sang that it would be alright.

If you want to view the hour-long hearing, here’s the LINK.

Mt Davidson’s Moist Green Forest in September 2015

Moisture content of vegetation is one of the key determinants of fire hazard. In Mount Davidson, the drier side is clearly the native plant area, not the forest. This visitor went up to the forest to see – and document –  how the drought has affected the plants under the trees. Here, after four years of drought, is Mt Davidson’s forest.
This is another of our Park Visitor series: First-person accounts of visits to our San Francisco parks.


Mt Davidson google map

This google earth view shows the forest on the west side of the park and the grassland on the east side. Homes surrounding the park are also visible. I walked from the north side from Rockdale Drive and ended on the south side along Myra Way.

A presentation by Michie Wong, SFFD fire marshal, to the SF Urban Forestry Council, stated that the condition of the forest floor is the key to fire hazard. If it is green it is not flammable, but dry grass and shrubs are.

How has several years of drought affected the understory in the forest at Mt. Davidson Park? I visited the forest to see and document the moisture conditions in the forest’s understory. This article comprises my pictures and notes.


Mt Davidson 1 - entrance with NAP warning sign and blackberry bushesNatural Areas Sign at trail entrance surround by green berry bushes.

Mt Davidson 2 - fuschia flourishing despite drought, watered by the trees catching the fogFurther up the trail on the north side of the park fuchsias thrive despite years of drought.

Mt Davidson 3 - greenery along pathwayHere’s a close-up of greenery on the forest floor.

Mt Davidson 5 - the girdled tree still has moisture and is sproutingWalking east to the grassland part of the park.  A eucalyptus tree has new sprouts — despite the drought and despite being girdled in attempt to kill it.

The greenery around it has been cleared or killed with herbicides for planting of natives species, now marked with green flags.

Mt Davidson 6 - the native plants are dry and flammableView of dead grass and shrubs among native coyote bush on east side of park.

Mt Davidson 7 - dead and dry plants near homesDead and dry vegetation next to houses.

Mt Davidson 8 - standing water while the native plants are dryHeading west in the park into the forest along the fire road.

A 4-foot wide puddle remains from the recent drizzle and thick fog that followed a week of record heat. It is typically muddier on Mt. Davidson in the summer (the “fire season” elsewhere) than the winter because of the fog.

Mt Davidson 9Heading down the fire road to the west side of the park.

Mt Davidson 10 Ferns on roadside despite the droughtFerns growing in the rocky slopes despite the drought.

Mt Davidson 11 - roadside grass and plants are greenGrass along the road is green and the ivy too.

Mt Davidson 12 - lush greenery on both sides of trailLush greenery on the both side of the road on the western side of the park.

Mt Davidson 13 - only watered by the trees catching fog its still green during droughtFurther down the hill, at the intersection with the Juanita trail.  No sign of drought here, despite no one ever watering this area like they do in Golden Gate Park.

Mt Davidson 14 - Southern side with sun exposure - still greenSouthern entrance to the park, with most sun exposure, is still green too.

Mt Davidson 15 - ivy is green and not flammableBoundary of park next to homes on Myra Way.

Ivy on forest floor has been cleared from fence but remains green and not a fire hazard.

We thank this Park Visitor for this report. We would especially like to draw attention to the picture of the girdled eucalyptus. Despite the effort to kill this tree, it still contains a lot of moisture – as evident from the sprouts. The grass and shrubs on the East side of the mountain are far more flammable.

PETITION: Sierra Club, Please Stop Advocating Against Trees and For Pesticides

The San Francisco Forest Alliance is joining a petition to ask the Sierra Club to stop advocating for the destruction of trees and the use of pesticides in the San Francisco Bay Area. You may be shocked to learn that the local chapter of the  Sierra Club is supporting – not opposing! – the destruction of 450,000 trees in the East Bay and is in fact suing to force FEMA to destroy all the trees, not just most of them. There is a petition to Sierra Club to withdraw its support for this environmental disaster.

Cutting these trees down will  stop them from fighting climate change and reducing pollution. The project would release thousands of gallons of toxic herbicides into the environment. It would increase fire risk by encouraging the replacement of damp and cool tree stands with shrubs and grasses that burn rapidly when dry. The post below is reproduced with permission from Death of a Million Trees, which fights the unnecessary destruction of our urban forest.

Please sign the Petition HERE.

sign petition to sierra club

Please also note the planned demonstration on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, at 4 pm, 2530 San Pablo Ave, Suite I, Berkeley, CA – the headquarters of the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter.

Monarch butterflies over-winter in California's eucalyptus groves

Monarch butterflies over-winter in California’s eucalyptus groves

Million Trees is sponsoring a petition to the national leadership of the Sierra Club in collaboration with San Francisco Forest Alliance. The petition asks the Sierra Club to quit advocating for the destruction of the urban forest and the use of pesticides in the San Francisco Bay Area. It also asks the Sierra Club to withdraw its suit against FEMA, which demands the destruction of 100% of all “non-native” trees (eucalyptus, Monterey pine, acacia). This is an on-line petition which can be signed HERE. If you are signing this petition and you are a present or former member of the Sierra Club, please mention it in your comments.

There will be a demonstration by supporters of this petition at the headquarters of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, at 4 pm, 2530 San Pablo Ave, Suite I, Berkeley, CA. Please join us if you can.

If you are a regular reader of Million Trees, you probably understand why we are making this request of the Sierra Club. For the benefit of newer readers, we recap the long history of trying to convince the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club that its support for the destruction of our urban forest, as well as the pesticides used to prevent its return, contradicts the mission of the Sierra Club as a protector of the environment.

  • This “open letter” was sent to the leadership of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. It informs the Sierra Club of many misstatements of fact in the chapter’s newsletter about the “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” of the East Bay Regional Park District.
  • This article is about the Sierra Club’s public comment on the “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” of the East Bay Regional Park District. The Sierra Club instructs EBRPD to put the “restoration of native plant communities” on an equal footing with fire hazard reduction. It also specifically endorses the use of pesticides for this project. In other words, native plants are more important than public safety in the opinion of the Sierra Club.
  • This “open letter” is about misstatements of fact in the chapter newsletter about San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program. We wrote that “open letter” because the newsletter refused to publish our letter to the editor.
  • This article is about misstatements of fact in the chapter newsletter about the FEMA projects in the East Bay Hills. This incident occurred during the brief period of time when the on-line version of the newsletter was accepting on-line comments. That opportunity to communicate with the chapter enabled a correction of inaccurate statements in the newsletter.

Sierra Club’s suit against FEMA, which demands the destruction of 100% of all “non-native” trees in the East Bay Hills was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Chronic annoyance at the club’s endorsement of destructive and poisonous projects was suddenly elevated to outrage. HERE is the Club’s description of its suit, which is available in its on-line newsletter. Attempts to communicate our outrage to the Club by posting comments on that article failed. That is, the Club is no longer publishing comments it doesn’t like, thereby cutting off any means of communicating with them. Our petition is the only means of communication left to us. The text of the petition follows and it can be signed HERE. Please distribute this petition to your friends and neighbors who share our concern about the destruction and poisoning of our public lands in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Title: Sierra Club must STOP advocating for deforestation and pesticide use in San Francisco Bay Area

Petition by: Million Trees and San Francisco Forest Alliance

To be delivered to:
Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club, michaelbrune@sierraclub.org
Aaron Mair, President, Board of Directors, Sierra Club, aaronmair@gmail.com

We are environmentalists who ask the Sierra Club to quit advocating for the destruction of the urban forest and the use of pesticides in the San Francisco Bay Area. We also ask that the Sierra Club withdraw its suit against FEMA, which demands the destruction of 100% of all “non-native” trees (eucalyptus, Monterey pine, acacia). If you are signing this petition and you are a present or former member of the Sierra Club, please mention it in your comments.

Over the past 15 years, tens of thousands of trees have been destroyed on public lands in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now hundreds of thousands of trees in the East Bay are in jeopardy of being destroyed by a FEMA grant to three public land managers. The Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club has actively supported all of these projects and now it has sued FEMA to demand the destruction of 100% of all “non-native” trees.

These projects have already used hundreds of gallons of herbicide to prevent the trees from resprouting and to kill the weeds that grow when the shade of the canopy is destroyed. Now, the FEMA project intends to use thousands of gallons of herbicide for the same purpose. These herbicides (glyphosate, triclopyr, imazapyr) are known to be harmful to wildlife, pets, and humans.

This environmental disaster will release tons of carbon into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to climate change. It will destroy valuable habitat for wildlife, introduce poisons into our watershed, cause erosion, and eliminate our windbreak. We call on the national leadership of the Sierra Club to prevent the active participation of the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club in this environmental disaster.

Petition background:

The San Francisco Bay Area was virtually treeless prior to the arrival of Europeans. The landscape was predominantly grassland, scrub, and chaparral. Trees grew only in ravines where they were sheltered from the wind and water was funneled to them. The trees that were brought from other areas of California and from other countries were chosen because they are the species that are best adapted to our local conditions. John Muir, the Founder of the Sierra Club, also planted these tree species around his home in Martinez and was as fond of those trees as many of us are still today.

The Sierra Club has now turned its back on this cosmopolitan view of nature in favor of returning our landscape to the pre-settlement landscape of grassland, scrub, and chaparral. This approach has led to the destruction of tens of thousands of trees and the use of herbicides to prevent them from resprouting.

In the East Bay, native plant advocates have also falsely claimed that “non-native” trees are more flammable than native plants. Although fire hazard reduction was the stated purpose of the FEMA grants, fire hazards will be increased by the clear-cuts of our urban forest for the following reasons:

  • Tons of dead, dry wood chips will be scattered on the ground to a depth of 24 inches.
  • The fog drip which is condensed by the tall trees moistens the ground and will be lost when the canopy is destroyed. The ground vegetation will therefore be drier and more likely to ignite.
  • The tall trees provide a windbreak which has been demonstrated repeatedly to be capable of stopping a wind-driven fire, which is typical of California wildfires.
  • The project does not intend to plant any replacement plants or trees. Therefore, the most likely colonizers of the bare ground are annual grasses which ignite easily during the dry season and in which most fires in California start and spread.
Hummingbird in eucalyptus flower. Courtesy Melanie Hoffman

Hummingbird in eucalyptus flower. Courtesy Melanie Hoffman

Many empirical studies document the rich biodiversity of our urban forest today. Bees, hummingbirds, and monarch butterflies require eucalyptus trees during the winter months when there are few other sources of nectar. Raptors nest in our tall “non-native” trees and an empirical study finds that their nesting success is greater in those trees than in native trees.

In short, the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club is promoting an environmental disaster that is adamantly opposed by tens of thousands of people. FEMA received over 13,000 public comments on its draft Environmental Impact Statement, over 90% in opposition to this project, according to FEMA’s own estimate. The signers of this petition are also opposed to this project as presently described by FEMA grant applications and its Environmental Impact Statement.

Environmentalists in the San Francisco Bay Area have been denied due process by the local chapter of the Sierra Club. The Bay Area Chapter has blocked every effort to communicate with them: they ignore our emails, block our comments on their blog, refuse our letters to the editor of their newsletter, and do not answer our phone calls. We believe that the national leadership has an obligation to consider our complaint because the actions of the local chapter are inconsistent with the mission of the Sierra Club. The local chapter is actively contributing to climate change and endorsing the use of toxic pesticides in our environment.

Can We Save These San Francisco Trees?

street tree with removal noticeThere are plans under way to cut down hundreds of street trees along some of San Francisco’s main thoroughfares. Generally, these plans get little publicity until the trees are posted with 30-day notices (these are the notices that inform neighbors that the trees are to be cut down). Neighbors are often shocked and dismayed at these plans. Though the notices usually provide a contact to protest the removal of the trees,  by that point it’s an uphill battle to save the trees.

It can be done: Consider the saved trees at Fisherman’s Wharf, and next time you visit there, consider how bare the road and brick walls would be without the trees! But it takes mobilization, determination, speaking up, persistence and luck.

San Francisco’s tree canopy is already inadequate at 13.7%, as against an ideal of 25%.  Street trees are enormously valuable to the community. They reduce pollution by trapping particulates in the air and thus keep them out of our lungs. They provide habitat for birds and butterflies like the Western Tiger Swallowtail that breeds in our London Plane Trees. They sequester carbon and thus fight climate change. They absorb sound and thus reduce noise pollution. They reduce storm water runoff. (Here’s a link to an article discussing all the benefits of urban trees.)

They have also have very significant health benefits. A recent article in the New Yorker mentioned research that quantified how much. The article noted that ten mature street trees per block was the equivalent of giving every household on that block $10,000:

“After controlling for income, education, and age, Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. “To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger,” Berman told me.”

Removing mature trees and planting saplings instead doesn’t provide the same benefits. It takes decades for the replacements to grow to the same maturity – and  meanwhile, all the benefits to environment, health, and habitat are accordingly reduced.

We would also point out that urban trees (or any trees) are seldom perfect. They grow in challenging conditions. Often, the justification for removing trees is that they are not in “good” shape. We would point out that unless a tree is actually hazardous, the standard should not be perfection, but that it is “good enough” to survive in the location to which it has adapted.

If you wish to fight to save these trees, there are two hearings coming up shortly. They will be held in Room 416 at San Francisco’s City Hall. [Edited to Add: If you cannot attend, you can still email your comments to the Department of Public Works and they become part of the public and official record. These are the email addresses: Chris.Buck@sfdpw.org and urbanforestry@sfdpw.org ]


At Geary and Masonic, there’s a grove of trees that softens an otherwise gritty and urban intersection. For pedestrians – including those who use the nearby bus shelter under the trees it provides a welcome green environment. These trees have been slated for removal. Neighbors are extremely upset, the more so because this project has been extensively discussed – but not the tree removal part. Instead, all the focus was on the loss of parking spaces as bike lanes were created. “I had the impression,” one neighbor said, “That they would be keeping all the existing trees and planting more trees.”

There’s a hearing scheduled for September 24th. A neighbor fighting to save these trees sent us this poster. You can print out the PDF here if you want to disseminate it: Geary_Masonic_Tree_removal

Masonic Geary trees slated to be felledVAN NESS CORRIDOR: HEARING on AUGUST 24th  2015

A neighbor wrote to us recently to say that 193 trees had been posted for removal in the Van Ness/ Lombard corridor:

“I want you to know that the SFMTA just put out tree notice removals on Van Ness and Lombard for their rapid transit project. There was no mention of this before to anyone living along the corridor when they began discussing this project. They are planning to cut down 193 mature trees along the corridor, and this is an outrage. These trees are important to the people who live along Van Ness and Lombard and they provide shade and bird habitat. They say they will plant 400 trees once the project is finished. What about all the birds who live in the tree opposite my mother’s home now? What about the hawks who nest opposite us?”

Here are the details of the hearing:

“I encourage you and any other interested party to attend the Public Hearing regarding the removal of the trees on August 24 at 5:30 p.m.in Room 416 of City Hall, located at 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place. If you are unable to attend the hearing, you may submit written comments regarding the subject matter to the Bureau of Urban Forestry, 1680 Mission Street, 1st floor, San Francisco, CA 94103. These comments will be brought to the attention of the hearing officer and made a part of the official public record.


We don’t have any details yet, but the Treasure Island Development Agency is planning to cut down trees as part of its development plans. We would note that this is one location where Monarch butterflies overwinter in some years.


We believe even more tree removals are planned, for instance along Geary. The San Francisco Forest Alliance will try to keep track of these projects and post what information we can about the proposals.

San Francisco can do better than this. If all our public agencies realized the true benefits and value of mature trees, they would seek to preserve them rather than cutting them down and replacing them with saplings. Or nothing at all. We all recognize that trees sometimes need to be cut down to allow for roadwork or construction. But we do think that preserving trees needs a much higher priority than it currently gets, and the public needs better (and earlier) information than it currently gets.

We wrote about Seattle, where road-work was accompanied by notice to save trees, not remove them. Here’s another. It’s a tree not even as pretty or mature as the San Francisco victim at the top of the page, but it’s been saved.

saved tree in seatttle

Trees are cut down for all kinds of reasons in San Francisco. Poorly designed projects are a major factor. So is poor maintenance. We support Supervisor Scott Wiener’s effort to fund tree maintenance by city experts rather than leaving street trees to home owners who may not have the expertise or resources to care for it and instead destroy it.

overpruned tree

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
William Blake, The Letters, 1799

Drought-Adapted Eucalyptus NOT Dying by the Thousand

This is a recent post from SutroForest.com, republished with permission and minor edits. We think it is important because the allegation that tens of thousands of eucalyptus trees are dying can be used as an excuse for forest destruction.

Jake Sigg, retired San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) gardener who is considered the doyen of the Native Plant movement in San Francisco, has a widely circulated email newsletter. In it, he has been pushing the argument that thousands of eucalyptus trees in San Francisco are dying of drought, as evidenced by epicormic growth on these trees: “2015 is the year of decision, forced upon us by 20,000 to 30,000 dead trees.” He is suggesting they will be a fire hazard and that SFRPD act, presumably by cutting down the trees. In a recent post, he published a picture of a tree covered in young blue-green leaves, and predicted it would be dead within a year.

But he’s mistaken.

Eucalyptus trees are drought-adapted, and the shedding of mature leaves followed by sprouting of juvenile leaves (epicormic sprouting) is one of their defense mechanisms. These trees survive in areas far drier than San Francisco, where fog-drip provides an important source of summer moisture.

2015-05-27 ab eucalyptus with epicormic growth wordEUCALYPTUS RESPONSE TO DROUGHT

Eucalyptus trees are adapted to drought. They shed mature leaves and twigs so they don’t lose water through transpiration (the tree version of breathing, which takes place mainly in the leaves.) Later, they can replace the lost branches and leaves through “epicormic sprouting.”

Blue gum eucalyptus trees have buds buried deep under their bark. When the tree is stressed, they may shed adult leaves and later sprout new leaves along their branches. When you see a eucalyptus tree that seems to have shaggy light bluish-green new leaves along its branches or trunk – that’s epicormic sprouting.

Here’s what Jake Sigg said in a recent newsletter: “According to arborists, the trees produce these abnormal shoots from epicormic buds when their lives are seriously threatened. In this case, the tree is expected to be dead by the end of 2015. On Bayview Hill, barring heavy unseasonal rain, hundreds of the trees will be dead this year. Yet the City continues to not see a problem.”

We asked UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Joe McBride and California’s leading expert on eucalyptus for his opinion. He’s observed this condition in trees along the edge of the Presidio forest and explains, “This response is common in blue gum as a mechanism to reduce transpiration rates in order to survive drought years.”

He continues: “I am not convinced that the trees will die in large numbers.

bayview-hill-2010 smTwo girdled trees


As an aside, we find it ironic that Mr Sigg should be so concerned with dead trees on Bayview Hill, given that’s where nativists girdled hundreds of healthy eucalyptus trees to kill them.

(This is done by cutting around the tree, thus starving it of nutrients that are carried only in the outer layers of the tree-trunk.) It’s clearly visible in the two photographs here, both taken on Bayview Hill.


Eucalyptus globulus thrives in Southern California, Spain, Portugal, India – all places hotter and drier than San Francisco. In fact, one of the reasons eucalyptus is so widely planted – including in climates both hotter and drier than in San Francisco – is that it adapts to a wide range of conditions. Here’s a quote from R.G. Florence’s textbook, Ecology and Silviculture of Eucalyptus Forests:

florence quote

From p.121 of the same book: “… they regulate their water usage in hot dry summers by closing their stomata [breathing pores in the leaves] during the day and lowering their rates of gaseous exchange. They adapt by their elastic cell structure to water stress.”


Mr Sigg describes “how to identify a dying blue gum” as follows: “Look for trees with thinning foliage and copious juvenile leaves (called coppice shoots) hugging the main stems. These coppice shoots are easy to see because of their blue color and tight clustering, as opposed to the adult leaves, which are 6-8 inches-long, dull-olive-colored and sickle-shaped and which hang from the ends of long branches. These coppice shoots are the give-away that the tree is in trouble and is destined to die soon…” (He later corrected “coppice shoots” to epicormic growth.)

But again, this is not actually true.

In fact, epicormic sprouting allows eucalyptus to survive not only drought, as described above, but even fire. The epicormic sprouting grows into new branches to replace the ones that have been damaged in the fire. This is from Wikipedia: “As one of their responses to frequent bushfires which would destroy most other plants, many Eucalypt trees found widely throughout Australia have extensive epicormic buds which sprout following a fire, allowing the vegetative regeneration of branches from their trunks.[4][5] These epicormic buds are highly protected, set deeper beneath the thick bark than in other tree species, allowing both the buds and vascular cambium to be insulated from the intense heat.[4]”

(The references are: [4] “Effects of fire on plants and animals: individual level”. Fire ecology and management in northern Australia. Tropical Savannas CRC & Bushfire CRC. 2010. Retrieved 27 December 2010. [5] “Learn about eucalypts”. EUCLID – Eucalypts of Australia. Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research. Retrieved 27 December 2010.)

And sometimes, dead branches and leaves and epicormic growth don’t even indicate stress – it’s part of the normal growth cycle. R.G. Florence’s book on eucalyptus says: the “mature crown of a eucalypt maintains itself by the continual production of new crown units, which die in turn. There will always be some dead branches in a healthy mature crown.” He goes on to say an “undue proportion of dead branches is an unhealthy sign” but a “reasonable proportion of death of crown units should be accepted as normal.” He also discusses the “epicormic shoots from dormant buds on the top and sides of the branch develop into leaf-bearing units of the mature crown.” (p.13) Eucalypts go through stages of development that include extensive self-thinning, particularly in younger trees. (p. 194)

Another reason for epicormic sprouts on eucalyptus is increased light. From Wikipedia, with references: “Epicormic buds lie beneath the bark, their growth suppressed by hormones from active shoots higher up the plant. Under certain conditions, they develop into active shoots, such as when damage occurs to higher parts of the plant or light levels are increased following removal of nearby plant. Epicormic buds and shoots occur in many woody species, but are absent from many others, such as most conifers.” [The Wikipedia article references the Encyclopedia Britannica.]

We have seen these epicormic sprouts in eucalyptus trees around the clubhouse in Glen Canyon after many trees were removed.

epicormic sprouts on eucalyptus when nearby trees removed

We also saw them on Mount Sutro near where 1,200 trees were removed for “fire safety.”


In summary, then, epicormic sprouting does not indicate that the tree is near death. It may indicate that the tree is responding to drought (or even to other stresses like pesticide use or damage to its root systems) with defensive measures. It’s like declaring that everyone who has a fever is bound to die of it. The trees below are the same ones featured in the picture at the start of this article – one year later, they’re surviving, not dying.

Epicormic sprouting on eucapyptus 2014In some cases, epicormic sprouting may indicate nothing at all, except that the tree is going through a normal growth phase, or changed light conditions following removal of nearby trees.


We asked Dr McBride if it made sense to cut down these trees. “I do not think the city would be justified in cutting trees down as a fire prevention action,” he says. “Cutting down drought-stressed trees at this point would be much more costly, sprouting would be difficult to control without herbicides, and the litter on the ground would have to be removed to decrease the fire hazard.”

“The problem as I see it is the accumulation of leaves, bark, and small branches on the ground. This material presents a serious fuel problem when it dries out sufficiently.” However, he points out that “In many eucalyptus stands in San Francisco the eucalyptus ground fuel (leaves, bark, and small branches) seldom dries to a point that it can be ignited because of summer fog and fog drip.” In dry areas, the best course is to “launch a program of ground fuel reduction by removing the litter from beneath eucalyptus stands.”

The eucalyptus-tree nest hole of the red-shafted flicker - San Francisco. Janet Kessler

Eucalyptus-tree nest hole of red-shafted flicker – San Francisco. Copyright Janet Kessler

A few trees may indeed die, with the drought or without it. If you think of a forest as a normal population, you expect to find some trees that are in thriving and some that are hanging on, and some that are dying – just like in any population. And dead and dying trees are very valuable to wildlife: They’re more likely to have cavities that are suitable for nesting (and are easier to excavate for woodpeckers and other cavity-building species). They also have bugs that come to feast on the decaying wood, and that’s bird-food.

War on Nature in the SF Bay Area

Our readers are aware of the horrible plan to destroy up to 450,000 trees in the East Bay Hills, and use powerful pesticides in huge quantities to prevent regrowth. There’s an effort on to get the word out with this poster.

mini poster War on Nature -1This poster is available here and can be printed out (8.5 x 11) as a PDF file here: 450k trees in danger-e-print Please help spread the word!

[Edited to Add: Here’s the same poster without the trim marks: 450k trees in danger-e-1 – you can print out either one.]

Fighting the East Bay Clear-Cutting of 450,000 Trees

Nearly half a million trees are likely to be felled in Berkeley and the East Bay Hills of the San Francisco Bay Area. There’s an extremely destructive project planned. The land managers sought Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding for this project, and a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was published. We wrote about this project HERE. The good news is that people responded: There were around 13,000 comments on the draft EIS. The bad news is that the Final EIS, released recently, still plans to destroy hundreds of thousands of trees, increase fire hazard, destabilize slopes, and use huge amounts of herbicide. It will be a disaster for the environment and for wildlife habitat.

People are fighting back to save the trees and the environment. As TreeSpirit says on their website, “Can you even imagine 450,000 trees being cut down?”


We are aware of three separate initiatives, and we urge you to give them your support.

HCN Save the East Bay Hills Trees sm1) The Hills Conservation Network (HCN) is raising funds to take legal action. They are a registered charity, a 501(c)3 organization, and have been fighting this battle from the start. They have a GoFundMe page where you can help by contributing toward the legal fund. Here’s the link: http://www.gofundme.com/SaveEastBayTrees

2) SaveEastBayHills has a website about this project saveeastbayhills.org where you can go to the ‘Take Action’ page to which details about what you can do to write to the decision makers to protest this project.  SaveEastBayHills is led by Nathan Winograd, who also cares about animals and has been a force in working for no-kill shelters.

Treespirit fundraiser to save east bay trees sm3) TreeSpirit Project is working to get the word out, because most people still don’t know what’s about to happen. An informed public is going to be crucial to stopping this horrible project. They’re raising funds for publicity. Here’s a link to the page describing what’s happening, and a planned photo shoot. http://treespiritproject.com/sfbayclearcut/

They also have a GoFundMe fundraiser going on: http://www.gofundme.com/SFBayClearcut

TreeSpirit Project is the work of photographer Jack Gescheidt, who creates beautiful pictures of unclothed people (all volunteers) in forests to draw attention to the vulnerability of trees. (HERE’s an example from Sutro Forest.)

TreeSpirit Project has the support of Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange, who wrote on his Facebook page: “If people knew the huge numbers of trees to be killed, they’d not stand for it, and so the numbers are not revealed, nor discussed. Several citizens groups, including my friend Jack Gescheidt’s TreeSpirit Project, have uncovered and now disseminate these mind-boggling numbers. We kindly urge you to, also!”


There isn’t much time to save these trees; felling is planned to start this fall. It’s a disaster in the making, and all based on an unreasonable prejudice against eucalyptus and a large number of myths that have been propagated.  Please do what you can:
1) Make a contribution as you can to the HCN legal fund and the TreeSpirit Project publicity fund;
2) Write to the decision-makers listed HERE, protesting the project: http://www.saveeastbayhills.org/take-action.html
Thank you to all our readers for their involvement. Without your help, thousands of trees would already be felled.
[Webmaster: This article has been updated to correct some information.]

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