E.R. – Eucalyptus Roulette

“In wildfires, the tops or ‘crowns’ of the trees blast off like miniature cannons, causing firey crowns to become airborne, carrying seeds many hundreds of feet.”

A Foreseeable Danger in Santa Cruz

In view of the foreseeable danger from the flammable, shallow rooted eucalyptus tree, it is now time for Santa Cruz to revise the existing Ordinance so it reflects the reality of conditions in Northern California.

rsward_burnhouseOn March 5, 1996 my wife was nearly killed by a falling 160 foot tall eucalyptus tree. A few years earlier, the Berkeley/Oakland Hills fire killed over 20 people and caused more than $5 billion damage. Fire officials say the blue gum eucalyptus was a key cause of that blaze and also the fire storm that recently struck Australia. Then there’s a San Francisco Chronicle article (Oct. 23, 1991), which pointed out, “Firefighters hate Eucalyptus. Their bark and leaves create kindling like litter. With the smell of smoke still in the air, the city manager got orders to clear out any that already grow on Berkeley public land.”

Back home, Santa Cruz Fire Marshall Mark Latham says, “blue gum eucalyptus are both a fire hazard and an aggressive plant that overwhelms and displaces native vegetation.”

GloriaAndRobertEucHaving lived in the area since 1985, this issue has become increasingly alarming. I began doing some of my own research. Here are some facts I discovered:

Ornithologist Karen Ritchie writes, “Eucalyptus may be held accountable for killing songbirds. Insectivores are attracted to insects feeding on its gummy flowers, only to have their nares blocked by the resins, eventually causing their demise. A hard cost for today’s plummeting neotropical migrant populations.”

Past President of UCSC Arboretum, Lorna Clark points out, “The present heritage tree description protects the trees which grow the fastest, achieve trunk size the fastest and are by definition the weediest and least desirable for the California landscape.”

The “Encyclopedia of Australian Plants suitable for cultivation” reports: “Although eucs have proved beneficial… problems have arisen. One is the capacity of some species to dry the soil because of their gigantic demands for water, and another is that certain species have become a tree-weed problem, e.g., in California.”

“The riparian corridor argument is faulty because riparian corridors are supposed to contain trees and plants indigenous to California, and the euc eliminates them. No riparian corridor should contain a eucalyptus treeÉ They choke out the indigenous [truly] heritage trees and foliage and become the dominant species.” –Debra Dixon, Aug. 16, 2000.

“When the Boy Scouts started cluster-bombing Marin County with [eucalyptus seedlings], Ansel Adams helped run them out, declaring ‘I cannot think of a more tasteless undertaking than to plant trees in a naturally treeless area, and to impose an interpretation of natural beauty on a great landscape that is charged with beauty and wonder, and the excellence of eternity.” –Audubon Magazine, Jan. 2002.

home_treesEducating the public will make it less of a political liability for Santa Cruz officials who understand the danger of polarizing well intentioned individuals against homeowners who simply want to protect their homes and ensure the lives of family members. Because it costs as much as $3000. to remove one 160 foot tree, homeowners are unlikely to take on any more expense than is necessary to preserve their lives. Acknowledge this fact and make it easier for both sides to proceed in good faith.
The word “Heritage” is misleading and unfairly loads the argument against homeowners endangered by hazardous trees. In any case, there is a foreseeable danger. If city officials deny a property owner’s request to remove trees situated on private property, why shouldn’t the City assume financial and legal liability for resulting damage to life or property?

If the Ordinance is allowed to stand as is, homeowners and their families may literally be burned alive as a “crown fire” causes eucalyptus trees to explode, say fire officials. Temperatures can reach the point where homes disintegrate and the ground beneath them turns to a ceramic like substance. Perhaps the Ordinance could be renamed Hazardous Tree Ordinance or, The Reality Tree Ordinance.

Reprinted from [Santa Cruz] GOOD TIMES, February 7, 2002.