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Wood chipping a fire concern

Matthew Artz Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday October 02, 2002

As the heat of fire season approaches, UC Berkeley police is warning people not to dump wood chips, which provide dangerous fuel to wildfires, on campus wildlands. 

The cost of bringing debris to waste centers and fears about the Sudden Oak Death tree disease are enticing many tree service companies to dump wood chips in the nearest open space, police say. 

This summer, police forced at least one company to remove chips it dumped illegally near the intersection of Grizzly Peak Boulevard and Fish Ranch Road. University police would not say the name of the company. 

Wood chip dumping is on the rise, police say, and presents an increasing danger to residents of the Berkeley and Oakland hills. 

When a large pile of wood chips catches fire, the chips smolder and the fire becomes more difficult to extinguish, said Cheryl Miller of the Hills Emergency Forum, a team of local cities and fire safety organizations formed to prevent a repeat of the 1991 Oakland hills fire. 

The hills fire spanned more than 5 miles. It killed 25 residents, destroyed 3,000 homes and caused roughly $2 billion in property damage. 

“As we saw in 1991 fires can move very quickly,” said Tom Klatt of the UC Berkeley Police Department. Local wildfires are fanned by “Diablo winds,” a strong low-humidity current that can throw smoldering wood chips a mile or more, Klatt said. 

Hills communities are especially vulnerable to wildfires in late summer and early fall when high temperatures and hot, dry winds whip over the flammable brush. Last month, two wildfires broke out in the Oakland Hills, causing minor damage. Neither fire was caused by wood chips. 

The increase in wood chip dumping this fire season is due in part to the local infestation of the Sudden Oak Death tree disease, Miller said. The pathogen, which has been found in all Bay Area counties except San Francisco, attacks 16 species of California trees including redwood, douglas fir and two types of oak.  

Since the pathogen spread to Alameda County, in September 2001, the state Department of Food and Agriculture has prohibited the transfer of living plant matter outside county boundaries.  

Though wood chips from infected trees are dead, many tree companies do not make the distinction, Miller said. The result, said Miller, is that tree companies from outside the county mistakenly think they are not allowed to transfer wood chips from stricken trees to waste centers in their home counties. 

Consequently, the companies often choose to dump the chips on a vacant parcel of land. 

Klatt noted that some tree companies choose to dump in open spaces to save money. The Berkeley Transfer Station charges $6.25 per 320 pounds of tree materials. Because trucks often carry as much as 2,000 pounds of wood chips, some companies prefer to dump for free, Klatt said.