Bay Area Home Buyers Beware: Buying Near Eucalyptus Trees — A Problem That Can’t Be Ignored

When the Oakland firestorm of 1991 (sometimes referred to as the 1991 Tunnel Fire) initially materialized, no one could have predicted that 25 people would lose their lives and over 3,000 homes would be destroyed. No one could have known that a small grass fire that started at 7151 Buckingham Blvd., a hillside home in the Oakland Hills, would result in an immense tragedy remembered and reflected on over 30 years later. While the Oakland firestorm began as a grassfire, there are many who agree that the reasoning behind the unexpected intensity of the event could be attributed to the prolific presence of Tasmanian Blue Gum trees–also known as eucalyptus.

History of Eucalyptus: How did it get here?

Currently, there are over 40,000 eucalyptus trees, a total of 700 different species of the plant, in California. Eucalyptus is an incredibly versatile and enduring tree that is capable of reproducing with minimal effort. The University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources described the tree as having, “prolific seed dispersal abilities, and relatively good resistance to pests.” Eucalyptus can easily reproduce, with a branch or twig that is planted into the ground being capable of turning into a tree.

Its ability to propagate so easily is what makes the eucalyptus such a prominent plant despite its non-native status. Originally, eucalyptus is native to Australia. It was brought to California in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush. The reason for this could be attributed to the industrial need for building materials. According to the Independent, “Not only was eucalyptus a fascinating novelty, but the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s created high demand for wood for constructing buildings and for fuel. Deforestation had become a serious concern, so much so that the California Tree Culture Act of 1868 was created to encourage people to plant more trees, particularly along roads. Many entrepreneurs rushed to capitalize on the situation.” Unfortunately, the goal of having a plethora of lumber was short-lived, as it was soon realized that eucalyptus was a brittle wood that was too gnarled to efficiently work with.

Why is Eucalyptus so problematic?

Eucalyptus is viscerally flammable and resilient. The combination of these two things is what makes the plant so dangerous and such a large topic of debate. California, well-known for its wildfires, is covered by trees that create the perfect environment for fire to start and spread.

The reason why eucalyptus is so flammable is linked to the oils, miasma, and sap that it produces. According to Stephen Pyne, a fire ecologist, in his book Burning Bush, “For most eucalypts, fire was not a destroyer but liberator.” A common product associated with the tree is eucalyptus essential oil. While these oils smell nice coming out of a water-based diffuser, they are violently deadly in the case of a wildfire.

When a eucalyptus tree has caught flames, the oil goes from pleasant to hazardous. Bay Nature Magazine wrote about the relationship between eucalyptus oil and wildfires, explaining that, “Oil has a higher energy density and lower ignition point than cellulose (the stuff plant cell walls and Mini Wheats are made of), and in a hot fire, these oils can boil out of the leaf and then ignite, which is why blue gums have a reputation for exploding.” The ignitability of the eucalyptus is ultimately determined by the plant’s phytotomy, such as moisture, chemistry, and physical structures.

When one pairs the flammability of eucalyptus with its intense propagative abilities, it becomes apparent that, from the 1850s to the present, California has been confronted with an ever-growing threat. Scott Stephens, a University of California Berkeley fire ecologist commented to Bay Nature Magazine that, “Eucalyptus is flammable. But the thing that’s most concerning is the volume of material it can produce.”

What is California trying to do about it?

There are three main voices when the topic of eucalyptus trees are brought up: those who want to get rid of the plant, those that want to just “manage” eucalyptus growth, and those who don’t want to do anything because the eucalyptus tree is a plant, and plants are important. Because every argument has its fair share of positive and negative factors, there is yet to be any enormous action being taken on a wholesale level. Here are the three main arguments:

  • The first group wants to get rid of eucalyptus trees in the most cost-effective, immediate way: herbicide. The concerns with this approach are that the herbicide could potentially (and has a high likelihood to) kill the surrounding plant life as well.
  • The secondary group would argue that rather than trying to completely eliminate the presence of eucalyptus, it should just be aggressively and strictly managed, trimmed, and kept at a reasonable level. The struggle with this approach is that it takes large amounts of staffing, time, and money that, for many counties, is not available.
  • The final group argues that there should not be anything done against eucalyptus trees, as they’ve adapted to the local environment and are a significant part of the ecosystem. The issue with this argument is that eucalyptus functions more as an invasive species, as it changes the soil it grows on and aggressively evolves itself and spreads faster than other plant species.

No matter the approach that one might consider better than others, there is still an ever-looming threat of a repeat of the 1991 Tunnel Fire. According to Cal Fire:

  • “In July, more than three times as many acres had burned compared to the previous year through that date, with drought, extreme heat, and reduced snowpack contributing to the severity of the fires.
  • On August 18, 2021, the state of California was facing ‘unprecedented fire conditions’ as multiple fires including the Dixie Fire, McFarland Fire, Caldor Fire, and others raged on.”

As temperatures continue to rise each year and fire season begins earlier and earlier, the dormant but deadly threat of eucalyptus grows continuously more apparent.

How does this affect my buying process?

When buying a home, there are a series of factors that have to be considered in terms of natural disaster risk. Usually, these risks are related to earthquakes, soil liquefaction, the foundation of the home, and flood risk. However, in specific locations of the Bay Area (particularly the East Bay and other wooded zones), fire hazard and risk can become a significant factor especially in an area of “High Severity Fire Hazard Zones.”

View Your Fire Severity Zone Here

1. Costly Annual Inspections & Compliance

In cities such as Oakland, the Vegetation Management Unit conducts annual inspections in the High Severity Fire Hazard Zones per the California Fire Code 4906.1.1. for “the purpose of these inspections is to identify and mitigate hazards that could contribute to the spread, growth, and intensity of wildfire. Inspections are done annually, and property owners are required to actively maintain their parcels in a fire-safe condition year-round.” If it was found to be non-compliant, the Fire Department will reinspect the property on or after 30 days and it is the responsibility of the homeowner to fix whatever was noted to be in compliance during the next reinspection, for example trimming the brush away from the property. In most East Bay cities, non-compliance can result in fines, liens, or insurance non-renewals if they don’t meet fire prevention standards.

2. Much Higher Insurance Costs

While the inspections can vary from city to city, there is one item that remains constant — fire insurance. If your property or the property of interest is in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone or High Fire Hazard Severity Zone it can be difficult to get insurance on your property, and if you do it could be very costly. Some have seen their insurance increase as much as 5x. It is good to note that while you could be compliant with your city, your insurer could have a different set of standards and scoring system — most of which are kept private. So it is important to speak to insurance brokers about your options so you know what is expected in these areas and so that the property won’t be vulnerable to high insurance costs, coverage refusals, and non-renewals. A neighbor’s property could even potentially impact your home insurance as a Berkeley resident had found out in 2021.

3. Risk of Gradually Decreasing Resale Value

Insurance rates are increasing and many insurance companies are becoming more hesitant to insure properties in areas like Woodside and Portola Valley. California’s wildfire season continues to start earlier and end later. In areas of High Fire Hazard Severity, homes are likely going to be subject to rate changes and in a few years may not even be qualified for fire insurance hence hurting resale value.

Atlasa understands just how overwhelming these reports can be and we aim to alleviate stress in this process. Through due diligence and extensive research, Atlasa will aid clients in going through this documentation and picking important, notable, or alarming details that an untrained eye might not easily notice. If you are thinking about buying a home in the East Bay or other areas with fire-hazard policies and would like to get in touch with an Atlasa agent, please reach out to deniz@atlasa.com or check out our website at www.atlasa.com.

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Deniz Kahramaner

Deniz Kahramaner

Founder and CEO at Atlasa. Big Data Realtor. Email: deniz@atlasa.com Website: www.deniz.io LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/kahramaner/ Company: www.atlasa.com