Archive for the ‘Oakland hazards’ Category

Punk shale

23 February 2010

Up along Skyline Boulevard between Snake and Shepherd Canyon Roads is a long section of crumbling roadcut. The rock there is mapped as brown mudstone that has been questionably assigned to the Sobrante Formation. OK, enough of that. What struck me about it is how weak it is. This exposure is an excavation, probably for a garage, dug a good four meters deep into the hillside. And all the way in, it consists of this crappy stuff. Click the photo for an 800×800 closeup.

punk shale

The bedding slopes to the right; you can see three different units in this shot which is maybe two meters high. On top is a blocky layer richly stained with iron; the middle is lighter and crumblier, and on the bottom is a dark claystone. The big vertical streaks are backhoe marks, that’s how soft this material is. You can pluck it apart with your hands, scratch it with your fingernail. The dark layer is as creamy as chocolate between the teeth. As I stood there, the rattle of falling pebbles was nearly constant.

Covered with soil and shaded by trees, this rock will stay in place all right. But excavate into it and it turns to dry rubble. The roadcut is a steep slope of loose shale bits, topped with a meter or so of fresh strata and a big tangle of exposed tree roots dangling in the air. When the next big earthquake hits Oakland, expect this stretch of road to be buried and barred by fallen trees.

I think it’s earthquakes that have shattered this rock so pervasively over the years. It took thousands of them to lift these hills, and the process continues as surely as the continents move. Also, high, steep hills tend to focus seismic waves toward their peaks. Consider this account of the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake in the Los Angeles Star (17 Jan 1857):

“We may here relate what has come to our knowledge through the Rev. Mr. Bateman, who was traveling to Fort Tejon at the time. Previous to feeling the earth’s vibration, his attention, and that of his party, was attracted by a tremendous noise issuing from a mountain in that neighborhood, south of the Fort. Immediately after, they felt the shock. In conversation with Mr. Botts, in charge of the mill at the Fort, he stated that his attention was also attracted by the same noise, and on looking towards the mountain, he saw issue from its topmost peak, a mass of rock and earth, which was forced high into the air—this was unaccompanied by smoke or fire. The shock immediately succeeded. Thereafter, a noise from that mountain was premonitory of every succeeding shock, no matter how slight.”

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Scars of the Hills Fire

9 January 2009

eucalyptus scars

The hills south of Hiller Highlands, just across route 24, were swept bare by the 1991 fire. Anything that was there besides eucalyptus has been unable to compete, and now it’s a fire-prone monoculture. That suits eucalyptus fine—keeps down those riffraff oaks and madrone, thank you.

The hillside forest was partially cut down maybe ten years ago, then again just a couple years ago. Each wave of attack remains obvious on the landscape. Eucalyptus is like the hundred-headed Hydra in the Odyssey: every head you cut off grows two new ones in replacement. Hercules defeated the Hydra with his sword in one hand and a torch in the other, cauterizing the wound after each head he struck off.

We can only reclaim these slopes by poisoning the stumps, herbicide-haters be damned. For a successful example, see the new slopes along Skyline Boulevard between Broadway Terrace and Elverton Drive, a wedge of land belonging to the Sibley park that has been reclaimed from just this state, exposing some excellent outcrops.

Fire on the mountain

13 June 2008

hiller highlands fire

Yesterday there was a fairly small fire in a treacherous place, the Hiller Highlands neighborhood. There was confusion in the media accounts I saw, but here is the correct version, as you can see in this view from across the freeway this morning. The streets, from top to bottom, are Charing Cross Road, Tunnel Road, Caldecott Lane and Route 24. (A typo in the Tribune, “Charring Cross Road,” may give you grim amusement.) The blaze began on Tunnel where street work took place a few months ago, and nearly reached Charing Cross. As I shot this photo, fire crews were still combing the burn area in search of embers.

The hills love fire, and the ecosystem is adapted to it, but civilization here is not. Given that we have irreversibly encroached on the hills by permitting residential construction there, we’re stuck with the price in dollars and lives in perpetuity. Not even the next major earthquake on the Hayward fault, less than a kilometer west, will change this even though the whole neighborhood would likely burn down again, just like 1991, if it happened today.

Yesterday not an hour before the fire started, I was standing on Grizzly Peak Boulevard looking down at this part of town and sensing just how dry everything is. Instead of coming down through here, as I have before, I walked down through the Grandview neighborhood to its north. Upper Grandview is an uncanny place, having been wiped out in the 1991 fire and disneyfied since. Today I was going to visit the fire site, but I got this shot because instead I took the opportunity to try the fire road above Broadway that ends overlooking the North Oakland Regional Sports Center. If you visit the park, have a look at the fire-resistant garden there. The rocks are mapped as undifferentiated Great Valley Sequence and are mostly an undistinguished gray sandstone.

Sulfur mine creek

25 May 2008

Lion Creek drains Laundry Canyon in the Leona Heights and Crestmont neigborhoods as well as the former Leona Quarry lands. It runs through Mills College, past Evergreen Cemetery, and into the bay at 66th Avenue — it’s the stagnant creek you see from BART just north of the Coliseum.

This is one strand of its headwaters, coming out of a former pyrite mine at the end of McDonell Avenue. The local chapter of the Society for Industrial Archeology says about this mine, the Leona Heights mine, “From the 1890’s to the mid 1930’s, iron pyrite was mined here and at the nearby Alma mine. It was processed into sulfuric acid at the Stege Works of Stauffer Chemical in Richmond (and other sites).” The photo was taken in 2003; I think it’s a little better today. The orange is iron oxides, not especially poisonous, but it looks awful. As I imperfectly understand it, sulfuric acid in the drainage water drops this mineral as it is neutralized. The acid comes from sulfur-eating bacteria in the mine environment.

Yes, Oakland has its own example of the same acid mine drainage that plagues the Appalachian states and many other lands. Every place the pioneers came to, they began mining everything they could, because that was the only way to build civilization. Sulfur is essential for gunpowder, and pyrite was the readiest source. Coal came from the Contra Costa hills, mercury from San Jose and from points north, lime from the San Mateo coast (and the local shellmounds), rock of all kinds from the Oakland Hills. This place was rich in timber and pasturage, we all know, but rich in minerals too.