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Beverly Hills to Address Tree Fire Hazard North of Sunset
Trousdale residents spoke with fervor at this week’s Study Session on Dec. 17 to let the City Council know that they wanted immediate action to ensure that their homes did not burn down in the event of a fire. Eleven residents used public comment to voice their concerns in anticipation of a discussion on the City’s Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP), which prioritized Wildfire Hazard Evaluation and Mitigation.
“Everyone agrees that the trees in Trousdale are not appropriate for the neighborhood. If one of them goes, all of them go, and the whole neighborhood will burn down in a massive fire,” voiced resident Karen Platt, noting that the City had been talking about the area’s wildfire hazard “for decades” but had yet to take action. “Because it’s a fire, it will jump. After Trousdale, the fire would roll down to the flats.”
After hearing from residents, the Council directed City Attorney Larry Wiener to determine what CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) implications there would be to move forward with removing approximately 600 pine trees along Carla Ridge, an important evacuation route that is rife with highly flammable pine trees.
Wiener told the Council he estimated that all the trees could be removed within one to five months if the City decided to later “deal with the consequences” of removing healthy trees on a large scale.
A presentation by environmental consulting firm Dudek characterized the entire area north of Sunset Boulevard as a “very high fire hazard severity zone” and recommended beginning the process of removing Carla Ridge pine trees in 2020.
The Dudek study showed there to be a preponderance of higher flammability trees in the area – an estimated total of 3,500 in the public areas (25 percent of the total trees north of Sunset) and between 9,600 to 17,000 on private properties (45 percent of the total trees north of Sunset).
The tree types of greatest concern are pines, palms, eucalyptus, cypress, cedar and juniper. Those type of trees under City-control are concentrated along Coldwater Canyon Road, within Trousdale Estates on Loma Vista Drive and Carla Ridge, along Doheny Road, Lexington Road, southern Benedict Canyon Drive, and at the Greystone Mansion.
While the City is taking a longer-term approach to thoughtfully curate a sustainable urban forest that will endure over the next century, consensus from City Council members was that immediate measures to address the threat of wildfires needed to be taken.
“I view this as an emergency and urgent,” said Councilwoman Lili Bosse. “We have an emergency.”
“I do think we should move forward as quickly as we can to ensure the safety of Trousdale and Carla Ridge and all the areas,” said Councilman Julian Gold. He noted that the City would need to take an “aggressive posture” to ensure that it could likewise take effective steps to deal with fire safety mitigation risk on private property.
During public comment, several members of the Trousdale Homeowners Association voiced support for taking immediate action to minimize the opportunity for trees and landscape to facilitate a fire spreading.
“The challenge is that we’re at a crossroads, and there’s no containing a fire,” said Association member Shahram Melamed, who previously served on the Beverly Hills Planning Commission. “If we catch fire, within five to 10 minutes, the rest of the City is going to be on fire. So we’re the first line of defense.”
While the Beverly Hills Fire Department already performs annual inspections to help ensure that trees are pruned and maintained on both public and private areas, the threat of a wildfire igniting and spreading north of Sunset remains an ever-present danger. And while the City-managed trees are “highly maintained” according to the Dudek study, maintenance levels of trees on private properties varies, with more dense, uninterrupted landscaping that can fuel fires.
Further, the Dudek study found that the City’s current maintenance programs minimized risks of tree-related fire or downed branches. Of particular concern was that the structural integrity of the pine trees on Carla Ridge could cause them to collapse, blocking egress from the area and effectively curtailing an essential evacuation route.
“Safety has to be our highest priority as members of City Council,” said Councilman Bob Wunderlich, who characterized the Carla Ridge pine trees as “ticking time bombs.”
“I certainly am greatly concerned about the fire hazard,” he added.
The Dudek study recommended increased maintenance and crown thinning on evacuation corridor trees, as well as increased inspections on trees to reduce the risk of failures.
During public comment, resident Lester Trout was among several people who advocated that the City immediately remove all the pine trees on Carla Ridge.
“I don’t think a fire makes exceptions [and] I don’t think there’s anything like a healthy pine tree in the case of a fire…so remove them all,” he said.
Resident Patrick Fogarty likewise inquired during public comment as to why there would be any question about moving forward with removing the hazardous pine trees that are prone to ignite, particularly because the City doesn’t even allow residents to plant new ones.
“I don’t think we should kick the can about removing them,” he said. “I think it’s hypocritical that we’re even talking about removing them when residents aren’t even allowed to plant them.”
“Something needs to be done more quickly than we have done going forward,” said Vice Mayor Lester Friedman. “I think this as an overall plan being presented to us is sound.”
Bosse advocated action without delay.
“My recommendation is to remove the trees and then go through the public process of what trees there should be to replace them,” Councilwoman Bosse said.
Mayor John Mirisch took a different view to the process of tree-removal.
“We need to go on a tree-by-tree basis,” he said. “I do think we need to replace the trees. I’m not suggesting we wait, but we should do it in tandem (with replacement) and have a plan.”
“We talk about global warming and so if we don’t replant the trees, then we’re just contributing to global warming,” he added.
Concurrent with Wiener’s inquiry into the CEQA implications, the City is also conducting further tree failure risk assessments on evacuation corridors as well as moving forward with a more stringent corridor tree maintenance and inspection program.