UCSF’s “Urgent Fire Safety” on Mt Sutro – How True?

Our readers have been following the story of Sutro Forest, the beautiful Cloud Forest that lies in San Francisco’s fog belt. It captures moisture from the marine layer fog, and is thus wet all through the summer and into the Fall, which protects it from fire-hazard. In January 2013, UCSF issued a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) on a Plan threatening to cut down 90% of the trees on 3/4 of the Mt Sutro Open Space Reserve.

Until recently, we understood that the tree-felling had been postponed to 2014, as UCSF needed more time to respond to the detailed and voluminous public comments on the DEIR.

Mt Sutro Forest, Sept 2013 (Photo: SutroForest.com)

Then UCSF sent out a notice that it would be performing “urgent fire safety work,” felling over 1000 trees and mowing down understory on Mount Sutro in response to San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) having provided an “independent assessment of the Reserve.” (We reported on that HERE.)  On its own website announcing it had completed work, UCSF says, “The measures, which began Aug. 26, are in response to an assessment this summer by the San Francisco Fire Department that found “extra hazardous fire conditions” in the urban forest.”

All of this creates the impression that SFFD came in, took a close look at the forest, and found “extra hazardous conditions” – and that UCSF’s actions were in response.  But is that what really happened?


The determination that fire conditions are “extra-hazardous” is important. If they’re just the normal fire-risk, then the required clearance to structures is 30 feet. If it’s “extra-hazardous” then it’s 100 feet.

At 30 feet of clearance, UCSF would need to do very little: This amount of clearance already existed in most places.  But by declaring it “extra-hazardous” UCSF decided to clear understory and slender trees on around 20-25% of the Mt Sutro Open Space Reserve.

The discussions about Sutro Forest have been going on since about 1995. Right now, there’s a Draft EIR on a Management Plan being processed. This sudden August 15th UCSF notice planned to start work within 10 days, without any public meeting or discussion, or reference to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because it addressed “immediate fire safety and emergency concerns.”

So of course we were very interested in just how the extra hazard – and emergency – had suddenly been decided.


UCSF claimed an “independent assessment” by the SF Fire Department (SFFD).  But was it?

Under the Sunshine Act, we obtained documents from SFFD, covering the correspondence between UCSF and the San Francisco Fire Department. It demonstrates no independent assessment nor any evidence of “extra-hazardous” fire conditions at that time.  It appears that UCSF, finding its efforts to start gutting the forest this year had been stymied by the overwhelming public opposition to its Draft EIR, decided to do an end run around CEQA.

  • SFFD had not independently expressed any concerns about fire hazards on Mount Sutro.  UCSF tried to get them to come to Mt. Sutro and tell UCSF to cut down trees.  That apparently didn’t happen.
  • Then UCSF drafted a letter for SFFD saying there were extra-hazardous conditions requiring the 100-foot clearance.
  • Only after our Public Records Act request revealed that SFFD had been used to get around CEQA, after the public had been told that SFFD had made an independent assessment, on the very day that cutting started, did SFFD perform an after-the-fact walk-through of Mount Sutro to justify what was being done.


Here’s the timeline:

  • 13 June – 10 July 2013:    UCSF tried to get the San Francisco Fire Department (“SFFD”) to come to UCSF to do a fire hazard inspection on July 11th. There’s no record that the meeting ever happened.

(This is a PDF of email correspondence apparently trying to set up such a meeting – but no evidence or acknowledgement that it occurred. Please note UCSF labeled them ‘Attorney-Client Privileged’ – even though they are not. This looks like they’re trying to prevent the public from seeing them. Email messages July 2013 (UCSF-SFFD) )

  • 23 July 2013:   UCSF drafted a letter for SFFD’s signature stating that “SFFD has determined that 100 feet of fuel clearance for structures is required due to extra hazardous fire conditions.” (There was no substantiation of these “extra-hazardous conditions. Without them, a clearance of 30 feet – which already existed in most places – would have been sufficient.)

(Here’s the PDF of correspondence between UCSF and SFFD indicating that UCSF provided the draft letter: UCSF – SFFD emails July 2013 )

  • 27 July 2013:   Due to overwhelming number of comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report opposing felling trees on Mount Sutro, UCSF announced that it would not be able to complete responses and hold the hearing approving the EIR in time for work to begin in 2013, and this would be postponed to 2014 after the bird-nesting season (around mid-August).
  • 14 August 2013:  UCSF sent out a public notice that it would begin tree removals on August 26, and attached the SFFD letter (which had been drafted by UCSF) as justification.
  • 20 August 2013:  San Francisco Forest Alliance sent SFFD a letter demanding immediate disclosure of all records pertaining to fire hazards or assessments of fire hazards on Mt. Sutro.
  • 23 August 2013:  SFFD provided no records of any fire assessment on Mt. Sutro, and only produced one document showing that UCSF had scheduled a tentative Mt. Sutro site visit on July 11th  (and no evidence or assurance that this site visit had occurred).
  • 26 August 2013:  (1) “Urgent fire safety” work started. (2) On the same day, the day tree-felling began, SFFD actually did a site inspection of Mt. Sutro. This was reported in a letter to UCSF dated August 29th, when the work was well under way. Clearly, it was after the fact, and not independent. The inspecting contingent included several UCSF staff.  From SFFD, it apparently included Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White together with several other SFFD staff. Most of the letter details the work that is being done – all of which is apparently based on UCSF-provided information. The “independent assessment” is one paragraph of generalities, describing conditions that have been unchanged in at least the last ten years, and don’t therefore substantiate any “emergency.” That letter is HERE. SFFD Aug 29 letter to UCSF

Is it possible that this letter, too, was drafted by UCSF? We don’t know. If we find out one way or the other, we’ll publish it here.

In any case, SFFD has clearly provided this support as a courtesy to UCSF, and there has still been no independent substantiation of the ‘extra-hazardous’ conditions throughout the areas where the “work” was performed. Or of any emergency.

BEFORE picture in Sutro Forest. (Photo: SutroForest.com)

AFTER picture in Sutro Forest. (Photo: SutroForest.com)

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9 Responses to UCSF’s “Urgent Fire Safety” on Mt Sutro – How True?

  1. Jane Shepard says:

    The after photo is the one that looks like a fire hazard!

    It is infuriating that UCSF seems to be like RPD in that they do whatever they please, are accountable to no one, and outright lie to get what they want. Grrrrrr!!!

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Tony Holiday says:

    Of course it was all *them* and not the fire dept. This whole bunch are now using fire scare tactics where none is justified to do their evil deeds. I can’t believe how anti-environment they are, when other cities, states and countries are planting more trees and trying to conserve and protect earth’s endangered resources against developers and misguided so-called “nativists.” Even little kids could understand the wisdom of not cutting down healthy trees or harming forest animals. The whole *city* needs to rise up against these people. We need more influentials to step in — like politicians who actually *care* about this city. More treehuggers needed — less people who want to fight Mother Nature and destroy her creations… Thanks so much, as always, SFFA, for all you’re doing to try to inform and educate.

  3. It seems that regardless of all of the hard work and public outcry against the Natural Areas Program, they always find a way to destroy a perfectly sound forest. Shame on you!!!!!!

  4. It is always of interest to me and many others just who “they” is. What motivates the persons (are they ever identified individually?) who perpetually want to destroy forests. Come on, people. WHO ARE THESE PERSONS? WHAT IS THEIR OFFICE OR PROFESSIONS THAT MAKE THEM QUALIFIED TO JUDGE OUR FORESTS?
    Speak up, you who would destroy our forests!

    And who at UCSF has fallen for these awful “ideas”, schemes for making money, and are tree-haters. SPEAK UP YOU ALL.

  5. milliontrees says:

    Great picture of the sopping wet forest at the height of fire season. How could anyone honestly claim there is an urgent fire danger there? Blind people, people who have never been there, or liars.

  6. LJ Speakup says:

    What legal action is available to us? How can we use the press or social media to call out these criminals? Thx

  7. pupacaemdo says:

    Donald G Enochson
    740 Laguna Honda Blvd
    San Francisco, CA 94127
    (415) 566-6408

  8. Pingback: UCSF, Sutro Forest, and – “Emergency”? | Save Mount Sutro Forest

  9. dolaneargle says:

    Over and over… We must insist that the “fire danger” expressed by some UCSF persons who do not seem to be inspired by forests is shown to be a real danger and not simply the “out -of-the blue” idea of only one or two uninformed persons.  Isn’t it time for some authorities within the University of California (foresters from UC Davis?) give an authentic and not personal opinion of the conditions here? -dolan eargle Director, Trees Company, San Francisco

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