Serious fire threat on Mount Sutro prompts brush clearing work 

  • Mike Billings/The S.F. Examiner

A growing fire danger on Mount Sutro has left hundreds of students and other residents, along with a 600-bed medical center, at risk.

On Monday, UC San Francisco plans to begin thinning undergrowth and removing small trees to help lessen fire threats by creating 100-foot buffer zones around structures and critical infrastructure, including a water tower. The safety area is required by Cal Fire and also would help firefighters battle any blaze that could potentially erupt there, according to fire officials.

In late June, the San Francisco Fire Department, which is responsible for firefighting at the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, warned in a letter to UCSF that "100 feet of fuel clearance for structures is required due to extra hazardous fire conditions."

The college and an outside arborist will remove about 1,200 trees, all of which will be less than 6 inches in diameter, and thin shrubs and mow down other plants.

The work will focus on about 15.6 acres of the 61-acre open space. It's primarily around student housing, which has nearly 400 residents, along the southern area of the reserve near which there are about 90 homes, and near the medical center, according to UCSF spokeswoman Kristen Bole.

UCSF Fire Marshal Curt Itson said conditions around the reserve are exceptionally dry, and something such as the recent lightning storms in the Bay Area could ignite foliage.

The potentially flammable material has built up for years, according to Craig Dawson, a member of the Sutro Stewards who grew up across from the reserve. He said the decades of deferred management of brush have combined with last winter's drought and an invasion of the snout beetle to create a serious fire danger.

Dawson cited Christopher Drive on the southern edge of the reserve, where the trees stretch over the roadway within dozens of feet of homes. He said a fire could grow rapidly by burning through dead eucalyptus trees and fallen bark and leaves.

Itson said the streets could be a fire line during a potential blaze, but also noted that the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 jumped a highway.

In 2001, UCSF created the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve Management Plan, which has wended its way through the community hearing process since then. Earlier this year, the university made available the draft environmental study for the proposal, which includes four projects for management of the area.

The proposals have met resistance from some groups and neighbors, including Save Mount Sutro Forest, which said it has issues with the fire management project.

Spokeswoman Rupa Bose said the group is concerned about the short amount of time in which the plans were drawn up for the project, which she noted covers nearly a quarter of the reserve.

The group also contends that leaving the hills as-is would be a better way to avert possible fires, as the dense eucalyptus trees draw in moisture from fog and the thick underbrush holds the dampness. Losing the underbrush, the group claims, will dry out the forest and increase the fire risk.

Dawson disputes any opposition to the upcoming work and said anyone looking closely at the forest will see the need to protect against fire dangers.

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