In 1909, newspaper magnate Edward Willis Scripps began planting eucalyptus on the San Diego ranch he’d bought 11 years earlier. Those trees and their descendents have become the signature emblem of today’s Scripps Ranch. So in mid-May, local residents were shocked to hear what sounded like clear-cutting in their forest. Preparing against fire danger, the City of San Diego had ordered the removal of large swaths of mature and healthy eucalyptus trees in open-space areas. The work was being paid for with a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, approved in December 2007, and matching City funds.
It didn’t take long for a Scripps Ranch planning group and community activists to protest, and by early June, the City had put a moratorium on the eucalyptus removal. But according to Bob Dingeman, the City’s contractor left debris lying about “after the chain-saw massacre.” Dingeman, who is 87, has acquired the moniker “Mister Scripps Ranch” for his 30 years of work helping protect the community’s open spaces. He and other Scripps Ranch activists argue that it’s bark, leaves, and other ground debris that fuel fires, not healthy eucalyptus trees.
Still, after parts of Scripps Ranch were burned in the 2003 Cedar Fire, it seems natural that some residents would blame the eucalyptus. “When the firestorm hit our community,” Dingeman tells me, “and we lost so many houses, it seems someone spread the rumor that the eucs had flared, flamed, and burned. This was a patent lie, as none — repeat none — were reported or documented. This lie kept being repeated and suddenly became part of the San Diego fire department’s spiel.
“The lie,” Dingeman thinks, was propagated “by the group of people who advocate eliminating all nonnative trees and especially the ‘dirty euc.’ This group of people is well known in California. We have tried to counter their claim, but it keeps coming up all the time, despite repeated reports [to the contrary]. We have asked the fire department to put out a statement of facts on fires and eucs, but they have elected not to do so.”
A likely provocateur was a 2002 “Incite” column in Audubon magazine called “America’s Largest Weed.” The article’s writer was Ted Williams, who still pens the publication’s regular column.
Williams opened with these words: “If you smell like a cough drop when you stumble out of the California woods, it’s because 100 of the world’s 600 species of eucalyptus grow there. None is native. They were imported from Australia during the second half of the 19th century as we were hawking our redwoods to the Aussies. ‘Wonder trees,’ the eucs were called, because they shot up in coastal scrub and vast redwood clearcuts.”
Later in the article, Williams blamed the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire on eucalyptus and noted that the City of Oakland suddenly faced a barrage of negligence lawsuits because nine years earlier it had been warned about the trees’ fire danger.
“Of the many eucalyptus species that evolved with fire,” wrote Williams, “none is more incendiary than blue gum. ‘Gasoline trees,’ firefighters call them.” He went on to argue that although fire doesn’t kill blue gums, it helps spread the trees by popping their seedpods, while the trees stimulate fire with their oils, debris, and hanging bark, all “designed to carry flames to the crowns. Blue gum eucalyptus doesn’t just burn, it explodes, sending firebrands and seeds shooting hundreds of feet in all directions.”
Is San Diego’s fire department dependent on some such characterization for understanding the Scripps Ranch situation? According to local resident Will Lofft, most eucalyptus trees in Scripps Ranch are red gum. Blue gum does grow in the river valley south of Pomerado Road, but it was only the debris underneath the trees that burned during the Cedar Fire. Extremes of heat and wind are needed before the red gums will burn. The ridge just to the east of Scripps Ranch was the only place they burned in the Cedar Fire. “And because of the wind, everything in sight burned up there. There is not a history of fire in the lower eucalyptus forests of Scripps Ranch,” says Lofft.
Yet the idea that “crown fires” were the culprit in 2003 seems to control the fire department’s thinking, says Lofft. He says he’s been arguing with the department since February for a more rational approach. “Crown fires mostly happen where there are dense pine forests and the flames jump across the tops of the trees. Here, fires spread in the weeds and native ground cover. Eucalyptus forests actually make it difficult for the ground cover to grow. And they block wind gusts.”
Lofft and I are standing where the City’s tree removal came to a halt in June. The strip of several hundred yards parallels Scripps Ranch Boulevard on one side and a row of homes on the other. To the north lie scattered bark and logs of varying sizes, from a few inches to two and a half feet in circumference. To the south, trees are still standing all the way to Pomerado Road.
“The guy who owns that house,” says Lofft, pointing up the hill, “couldn’t see the boulevard before the tree removal. Now he sees license plate numbers on cars going by. Another house had 80 mature trees removed from behind the property. People liked to look out their back windows into the forest. That’s a big reason they bought here. Our community plan promises that the eucalyptus forests are part of Scripps Ranch living.”
Writing on a website called Scripps Central, Lofft maintains, “The fire department is still driven by fear of any perceived form of liability and armed with federal grant money to spend by 2010.” Besides the fire department, the Park and Recreation Department’s Open Space Division played a large role in addressing the eucalyptus situation in Scripps Ranch. According to Lofft, Open Space is motivated by a mission to remove nonnative vegetation. “There are pressures from some of the more radical environmental organizations,” he writes, “to remove nonnative trees and federal directives to protect native plants — all aimed at our forest.”
Scientific work in Australia, says Lofft, suggests that eucalyptus groves retard fires. “According to scientists down under, the eucalyptus may actually reduce the risk — both by killing the flammable brush underneath them and by forming windbreaks as well as fire breaks which knock down burning brush embers airborne in 50-mile-per-hour winds.… The fear is that the fire department, while trying to eliminate as many eucalyptuses as they can to reduce fire danger, will…increase the real danger to the community and simultaneously destroy its character.…
“The final issue is one of finances,” Lofft continues, “and there is real risk that if the City resumes its current plan of cutting tens of thousands of mature trees in Scripps, it will run out of funds with the job only partly complete.… There are 117 sites planned for the same fate as ‘Ground Zero’ on Scripps Ranch Blvd. They would basically destroy some large part of the forest and leave the rest untouched — the worst of all worlds.”
Save Our Scripps Ranch Trees is an ad hoc group that may influence the City’s ultimate action. With the moratorium on tree removal still in effect, representatives met with fire chief Tracy Jarman on July 29 to discuss the group’s “position paper” on the brush-management program.
The position paper addresses discrepancies in the City’s environmental document on the brush-management program, saying the report did not “adequately disclose the environmental impact” of the program to FEMA. The environmental report’s discussion of neighborhood characteristics and aesthetics highlights the argument. For instance, the environmental report states that the plan “would serve to minimize any potential impacts to mature trees, and.… No mature trees will be removed with the proposed brush-management zones.…”
In the process of writing their paper, members of Save Our Scripps Ranch Trees discovered that the law firm of Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek had expressed concern about the aesthetic effects of the City’s brush-management plan. After the firm quibbled with some of the plan’s requirements, according to the position paper, the City “clarified their position by stating that ‘Current proposed brush-management regulations do not require removal of mature trees.’ ”
The position paper makes recommendations for negotiation with the City. It suggests a priority ranking of actions, “beginning with the removal of underbrush and ladder fuel [including lower tree limbs] first, followed by the removal of dead trees and severely diseased trees — both identified in advance with community concurrence — and canopy thinning/pruning.” Where there are no eucalyptus trees, “The City should thin and remove brush.” “Selective eucalyptus saplings should be retained to maintain the long-term health of the eucalyptus-forested areas.” And “selective areas of brush should be retained to prevent low-flying embers from undisrupted propagation, otherwise known as ‘a bowling alley effect.’ ”
Gordon Boerner and Bob Ilko, leaders of the Scripps Ranch Civic Association, tell me they are optimistic. At the July 29 meeting, they say, Chief Jarman listened intently. She promised to reconsider the brush-management plan for the Scripps Ranch forest and to announce any change of direction soon. But the City is still waiting for a legal opinion on its options from the city attorney’s office. Boerner writes me by email that unless the City acts quickly, any brush-management approach may be too late to reduce fire danger.