Climate change struck close to home Monday morning when Sonoma State University kickstarted the clearing of long-standing eucalyptus trees which bordered the campus.
Since the 1970s the trees have stood guard over the school’s front gate along East Cotati and Petaluma Hill Road, but their vigil is now at an end--and on an appropriate morning, too. Smoke from nearby wildfires hung heavy, choking and thick. The smoke was a promise, a reminder of the new dangers inherent to our climate, and a warning to the twin cities of Rohnert Park and Cotati that it is only luck which has preserved them through the seminal, annual disasters which now plague our county.
And it was with the threat of fire in mind that Sonoma State University ordered the removal of approximately 200 trees, according to Robert Eyler, SSU’s interim Public Information Officer.
“We had fires last year. Now we have fires again. In 2018 there was that big fire in Chico and Paradise,” Eyler said. “We just didn’t want to roll the dice that a fire close to campus might get to campus.”
While prevention is good, it doesn’t come cheap, but luckily FEMA sets aside money for just this sort of project. Sonoma State applied for assistance after the 2017 Tubbs Fire struck Santa Rosa and killed 20 people. FEMA approved a grant of $297,984 for the removal of the eucalyptus trees.
Unfortunately, the grant doesn’t cover the trees’ replacement. The current plan, according to Eyler, is to plant foliage native to California--though it’s a plan in name only. As of publication of this story there is no timetable for the project, money set aside in SSU’s budget, or a list of indigenous species under consideration.
“The idea is sooner rather than later,” Eyler said.
Eucalyptus’s presence in California isn’t natural. It came to the state back in the gold rush of the 1850s, and it’s native to Australia. Australia is unique in that it has a climate roughly similar to ours--long, dry summers capped off with a fierce fire season. Eucalyptus, or gum trees, thrive in the rich soil left behind after a bushfire and their leaves actually intensify a blaze by producing a combustible oil. Eucalyptus oil is so flammable that ignited trees have been known to explode.
But for Rohnert Park resident, Chris Lambert, this isn’t a cause for concern.
“I don’t think the fire protection is very justified here. I think it’s mostly the actual forests--the brush and the grass, that’s the stuff that’s really the hazard,” Lambert said. “We need to have more controlled fires outside city limits. Trying to prevent it once it’s in the city, that’s not really the city.
SSU will remove all eucalyptus trees along East Cotati Avenue and Petaluma Hill Road.
Completion of the project is expected before the second week in September.