Safety Work in Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve - FAQ

Why are fire reduction measures needed in the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve?

In 2013, the San Francisco Fire Department performed an independent assessment and determined that UCSF needed to create a 100-foot fire defensible space zone around structures within and bordering the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, including neighboring homes on Edgewood Avenue, Christopher Drive and Crestmont Drive. The SFFD completed another assessment in September 2015 and found that the work is required again to maintain safe clearance between wild land and structures.

On September 17, 2015, prompted by California’s devastating 2015 fire season, Supervisor Norman Yee convened a hearing of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee to discuss the City’s response in the event of brush fire. At the hearing, Supervisor Yee recognized UCSF’s ongoing partnership with the community and the San Francisco Fire Department to enhance fire safety measures on all UCSF properties. At the hearing Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White supported UCSF’s efforts to protect public safety, saying “As Fire Chief, I do have concerns to make sure there is a balance between vegetation and good, solid urban forestry management to mitigate the fuel load.”

The 100-foot clearance conforms to the fire clearance provisions in Title 19, the Public Safety portion of the California Code of Regulation.

Will removing shrubs and brush dry out the forest and create more fire danger?

No. A forest captures water and shades the ground from the sun, but it does not store moisture very well. Forests are composed of plants that are designed to absorb moisture from the soil and return it to the atmosphere. This work will remove brush and shrubs that act as a ladder to move a fire up into the canopy and clear accumulated, dead material at the base of the trees. Shrubs that are cut will re-sprout and support a greater percentage of living biomass that is less fire-prone.

Will the stability of the slopes be compromised and lead to soil erosion?

No. UCSF brought in a geologist to confirm that slope stability will not be compromised by the hazardous tree removal. The Reserve will remain stable during and after the work because the extensive, interlocking root systems will not be destroyed and serve to protect soil from surface and mass movement. Leaving hazardous trees with heavy lean increases the landslide potential and increase the risk of injury and property damage.

Why is there fire danger if the Reserve is a cloud forest?

The Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve is not a cloud forest. The moderate temperatures of San Francisco are neither tropical nor sub-tropical, which is the climate where cloud forests exist. Even with the dense fog that often blankets the area, it is comparatively dry due to the characteristics of the eucalyptus trees.  Eucalyptus pull water from the soil, tying up the moisture in its roots. The Reserve is at risk of catching fire for this reason. In fact, over the last century, six wildfires have burned Mount Sutro including one that burned 100 acres.

History also shows that the fog zone of the San Francisco Bay region is not immune to catastrophic wildfires. In the Oakland Tunnel Fire in October 1991, one of the major fuels was the blue gum eucalyptus, the same species present on Mount Sutro. The 1995 Vision Fire in Inverness which consumed 14,000 acres, occurred in a dense fog zone very much like that of Mount Sutro. During the fire’s peak, when Santa Ana-type winds blew from the north to the northeast, it ran at 1,000 acres per hour. In 2008 in Santa Cruz, a fire started along Highway 1 and quickly moved from grass to blue gum eucalyptus. The fire moved rapidly up the hills, destroying many homes and overwhelming firefighting efforts.

The California Department of Forestry has publicly stated that our four-year drought is the worst drought on record, with the consistent lack of rain resulting in extremely dry conditions across the state.

Will herbicides be used to keep everything from growing back?

No, UCSF discontinued the use of herbicides in the Reserve in 2008. We will maintain the 100 feet of fuel clearance through regular, ongoing, budgeted maintenance work. We will continue to cut and mow back the poison oak and blackberry to prevent them from overrunning the trails, and we plan to use goats to control growth of some of the other vegetation.

In addition to fire safety measures, what other actions are you planning to take in the future?

As with all of its facilities and properties, UCSF Facilities Services conducts ongoing, regular maintenance in the Reserve including: removal of storm debris, downed trees or branches, hazardous trees, trash, campsites; managing overgrown vegetation, including near roads, trails, parking areas, walkways, stairs, and buildings; scheduled tree pruning every two years or as necessary to keep buildings, roads and pathways safe. In addition, regular maintenance in the Rotary Garden on the summit includes removal of invasive sprouts and maintenance of the perimeter of the summit by cutting back encroaching plants.