Story and Photos by Murray Schneider
With both the June 2nd deadly Berkeley Way fire and the approaching summer fire season fresh on their minds, San Francisco Recreation and Park Department officials began their annual summer fire abatement program on June 8th.
“We have a fire-prone situation at the rim of the canyon,” said Lisa Wayne, Director of Rec and Park Natural Areas program. “We need to provide the fire department with a fire break.”
Reached two days after she delivered St. Mary’s eulogies for her two fallen comrades, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White agreed with Wayne.
“Cutting back shrubbery is proactive,” she said. “It helps everyone, saving both lives and property.”
Consequently, along the slopes of Glen Canyon that parallel Turquoise Way and Crags Court, a team of workers from Shelterbelt Builders, a wildfire and natural areas restoration company that has contracted with the City for 10 years, attacked wild grasses that, left unattended, could propel a firestorm of destructive flames.
Each carried two-stroke weed mowers. They hiked along canyon bluffs, strewn with rocks and pockmarked with ruts, past Radish Hill and hummocks laden with thistle and poison hemlock. They eventually reached the homes below Berkeley Way, the scene of a devastating blaze that took the lives of San Francisco fire Lt. Vincent A. Perez, 48, and firefighter-paramedic Anthony M. Valerio, 53, six days before.
There they donned protective helmets and holstered their gasoline-powered string trimmers to their hips. They swung each in 45 to 60 degree arcing parabolas, laying waste to invasive grasses, all potential fuel for lethal wildfires. Once such flammable biomass is mowed 30 feet from homes, as City ordinance prescribes, houses situated along the ridges of Glen Park’s 60-acre natural area, as well as park wildlife and vegetation, are less threatened by conflagrations such as the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Hills inferno that destroyed 2,550 homes and took 25 lives.
Ben Adamo, who has worked for Shelterbelt for two years, spoke over the loud machines.
“We’re here to create a fire break,” he said, removing his earplugs. “The weed-eaters use only plastic non-combustible trimmer lines, so they can’t give off sparks.”
He pointed to several fire extinguishers he and his cohorts had also packed in and now rested on grasses, a double insurance against inadvertent flames.
“We remain in the area for 30 minutes after we’re done,” he added, “to ensure there is no unintended tinder ignited.”
The four laborers stepped over fallen Monterey pine limbs, threading their way along the spine of the trail that led back to Christopher Playground.
Below them, Randy Zebell, a Natural Areas program gardener, watched each laborer navigate the hill, like sure-footed Billy goats.
“These guys are extreme weeders,” he said, as each continued to clear brush. “They’re essential in creating fuel breaks so flames don’t cross onto private property.”
Shellie Prescott has worked for the East Bay Natural Areas Restoration Company for a year. Originally from Detroit, she enrolled in Northern Arizona University and earned a degree in forestry.
Pulling down the brim of her Detroit Tigers baseball cap that safeguards her from flying twigs, she laid down her weed whacker. She placed it atop a felled cypress tree branch and surveyed the mound of mulch she had heaped into a teepee-shaped sculpture.
“I’ve always been interested in preventing fires,” she said. “And I love working outdoors.”
Presently living in Oakland, Prescott intends to move to San Francisco.
“I’m impressed with Glen Park,” she said over the staccato roar of the power tools, which now sounded now more and more like a chorus of outboard motors. “In only a few minutes you can be in this open space and hikers who come up to us are informed about plants and wildlife.”
As if on cue, a wilderness photographer rose phantom-like from a camouflaged den of grass where she’d hid, impervious to a morning chill, and, schoolmarm-like, confronted Adamo, admonishing him that his discordant power tools disturbed slumbering coyotes.
In the canyon valley, Zebell, who had earlier sketched a map for Adamo, recalled other four-legged creatures that were once enlisted in the cause of fuel reduction.
“We used goats,” he said.
With huge appetites, herds of goats digested plant material during previous summers, and their scavenging resulted in indiscriminate bare earth chaos. However they also brought with them harmful exotic weeds.
Lisa Wayne, at a town meeting to explain how $900,000 of bond money will be used to improve and restore canyon trails, fielded a query about the efficacy of grazing goats for fire control.
“We had issues with them,” she conceded, even recounting a tale of goat napping. “On one occasion baby goats were stolen, and on another someone turned off the low-level electricity on the fence and goats escaped to neighborhood streets.”
In his turn, Adamo, trained to differentiate between indigenous California flora and non-native vegetation, wasn’t caught on the horns of a dilemma. He put his particular spin on the difference between eco-friendly goats and his knowledgeable crew.
“We’re more intelligent,” he smiled.
Lisa Wayne doesn’t have to administer an IQ test to Shelterbelt employees, some of whom have worked with the company since its inception in 1978.
“Shelterbelt provides a special niche in our natural areas,” she said, visualizing neighboring Bernal Hill’s precipitous inclines. “They recognize native plants and they can rappel from the steepest heights.”