When Dale Risden looks at the hillside behind his Oakland hills home, he sees a landscape littered with dead, dying, and hazardous trees. While there are still many native and thriving species, like redwood and oak, others, like Monterey pine, acacia, and the highly flammable eucalyptus, pose a severe fire hazard. 

The hillside is part of Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park, a sprawling 500 acres of meadows, creeks, and dense woods. Risden, who is the chair of Friends of Joaquin Miller Park, a nonprofit that stewards the land, has been asking the city for decades to address a mass of overgrown, dead, or dying vegetation in the park that could fall and injure visitors, or start a devastating wildfire. 

“You walk around and look and you’ll see dead trees everywhere,” Risden said. “These trees fall all the time and there’s no maintenance anymore.”

Oakland’s tree services division, part of the Public Works Department, was cut nearly in half during the 2008 financial crisis. As a result, the city only prunes trees in response to an active emergency, such as a tree that has already fallen and blocked a road.

Councilmember Janani Ramachandran, who represents District 4, where the park is located, is working with Friends of Joaquin Miller to address the potentially dangerous lack of vegetation management. 

“I’m very grateful for groups like Friends of Joaquin Miller Park that are volunteer run, that really pick up the slack to do some of the really critical park and tree maintenance and wildfire prevention adjacent work when our city has limited resources to do that,” she said. 

Volunteers with Friends of Joaquin Miller Park are concerned about the numerous dead trees and lack of tree maintenance throughout the park. They also help maintain the park’s landscaping. July 12, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Ramachandran recently insisted on restoring two positions in the tree services division that were lost during the 2008 financial crisis. The 2023-2025 city budget took effect July 1st, but she’s unsure if the positions have been filled yet. Two other tree services positions created as part of the 2021-2023 budget were just recently filled.

Ramachandran is in regular communication with the Friends of Joaquin Miller Park and has attended community work days with Risden and others to do park maintenance. The group used to clear small acacia, an invasive species native to Australia, but because Oakland residents aren’t allowed to use chainsaws or power tools at parks, they were instructed to stop.

Because the city lacks funds to properly address dead, dying, and hazardous vegetation, the Friends of Joaquin Miller Park applied for two grants from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. They were denied the first, which would have addressed forest health. They expect to find out this month if they will receive the other grant, which would help with wildfire mitigation. During the process, the group received support from Sonoma County’s Wildfire Services Group, a private company that provides consulting and mitigation work. Joel Holland, president of Wildfire Services Group, said he shares Risden’s concern. 

“Joaquin Miller Park is encumbered by hazardous vegetation,” he said. Holland thinks the problem should have been dealt with 30 years ago.

Ramachandran said the city is working on two plans that could better guide the city’s approach to the problem—an urban forestry master plan and a vegetation management plan. However, she’s not sure when they’ll be complete. 

Friends of Joaquin Miller Park President Dale Risden highlights areas of concern that are overgrown with dead and dying trees on July 12, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Meanwhile, others like Amelia Marshall, who does historical preservation work in the park and is also a member of the friends volunteer group, is concerned that if a fire does spark, it could rage all the way to the bay shore.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of hazard trees in the park,” she said. 

Ramachandran echoes this fear. “Joaquin Miller Park has these terrifying fire ladders,” she said. “If a fire happens in the hills, it’s going to impact all of Oakland.” 

In order to apply for the grants, Friends of Joaquin Miller Park worked with a registered professional forester, Ralph Osterling, who is particularly concerned about eucalyptus. 

In response to dwindling timber supplies, settlers in the mid-1800s and early 1900s began planting the fast-growing Australian eucalyptus tree. Joaquin Miller himself, described as the “poet of the sierras,” planted eucalyptus and other non-native species like Monterey cypress and olive when he owned the land in 1886. Today, eucalyptus is known to explode when met with fire. Osterling said that the flames burning from the top of the tree can be higher than the tree itself. He said eucalyptus should be removed entirely and other non-native species should be pruned, as well. 

A large stand of eucalyptus looms over a portion of Joaquin Miller Park on July 12, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

“As fatalistic as it sounds, it’s not if it will burn, but when,” he said. 

Risden and the Friends of Joaquin Miller Park are hopeful of receiving the CalFire grant and are prepared to try again next year if they don’t see funds this time around. Meanwhile, they continue to report problem trees and wait.

“I have one tree on Sandborn [street] that has been dead for 20 years,” Risden said. “I have spent 20 years reporting on that tree. That tree is still there.”

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.