Continued fire risk

Larry Harrell lhfotoware at
Thu Apr 29 09:17:23 EST 2004

April 28, 2004   Herald Tribune

Fire threat grows in San Bernardino forest despite fall blazes

Associated Press Writer

LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. Five suspected arson fires this week rekindled
fears among residents and forest officials already working feverishly
to avoid a repeat of last fall's deadly wildfires near this mountain

They have good reason to worry: The risk is even greater this year.

Bark beetles preying on drought-weakened pine trees have devastated
hundreds of thousands of trees in the sprawling San Bernardino
National Forest, killing nearly half the trees in some areas.

That has left huge sections of the forest ripe for another
catastrophic blaze.

"What we are seeing is the death of a forest," said Jack Blackwell,
forester of the Forest Service's Pacific Southwestern region. "If
these drought conditions keep up, the entire forest is at risk of
dying off, and of course this is a huge risk for fires."

Before last year's blazes, at least 40 percent of trees were dead on
pockets of land that comprised more than one-third of the 670,000-acre
forest, putting them at the highest risk of fire, said Forest Service
spokesman Rick Alexander.

If combined, those areas would be larger than New York City.

Only 7 percent of those dead trees were destroyed last fall, when two
huge fires blackened more than 160,000 acres, destroyed about 1,100
homes and killed six people.

In the past six months, even more trees have died from drought and
bark beetle infestation, adding more fuel for another blaze. Pockets
of dead trees now stretch from the well-populated resort communities
of Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead in the north to Idyllwild in the south.

The situation has set off a furious effort to cut firebreaks and
remove as many trees as possible before Southern California's fire
danger peaks in September. But the process is slow-going and

"We're still behind, and we're trying to catch up," Alexander said.

Much of the wood is worthless because of the infestation, and timber
companies run up heavy expenses shipping it to the nearest mill more
than 200 miles away. In some cases, timber has been burned or dumped
in landfills.

The Forest Service is also dousing healthy trees in camping areas with
insecticide and conducting prescribed burns like one that went out of
control at Big Bear Lake last month and turned into a 350-acre forest
fire. The miscue outraged already nervous residents.

Forest dwellers were also unnerved Monday when the suspected arson
fires struck areas west of Lake Arrowhead. The blazes were quickly
contained after being confined to grassy areas. No arrests have been

The forest's problems began with 19th century logging that cleared the
way for new trees to grow almost on top of each other. In some
populated areas, covenants barred removal of trees from private
property because residents liked the privacy and beauty of being
surrounded by firs, cedars and pines.

In recent years, however, the trees have attracted bark beetles, which
have thrived throughout the West as the result of drought that
weakened trees, and warming temperatures that allowed more
reproduction of the insects.

Tens of millions of trees across the region have been killed.

Last December, the federal government passed the Healthy Forest
Restoration Act, which allows more timber and brush to be cut and
cleared with less environmental scrutiny.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is distributing $150
million to tribes, local governments and others for tree removal and
other fire prevention efforts in Southern California. The Forest
Service is providing another $50 million.

In addition, the Forest Service has been given $40 million on top of
its normal budget of $4.5 million for fire prevention and fuel
reduction in Southern California.

Forest officials said the funding is a good start but not enough to
remove all the dead trees in the San Bernardino forest. Officials are
removing what they can, with nervous homeowners rushing to join the

Idyllwild resident Betty Miller and her neighbors have removed
numerous trees in the past few months. But she has had to wait for a
contractor to cut back an oak overhanging their home.

"He's so busy, we're on a waiting list," she said. "It's totally
unbelievable the amount of trees they're cutting down. Properties that
you couldn't even see, now it's thinned out. Some properties have had
all the trees taken off."

Some observers contend the firebreaks aren't the best way to protect

Tom Bonnicksen, a professor at Texas A&M University and visiting
scholar for the Forestry Foundation, a nonprofit group supported by
the timber industry, said there should be only strategic firebreaks
and more logging deeper in the forest.

The area also needs a mill that likely won't be built until the Forest
Service agrees to 10-year logging contracts that provide enough time
for a company to recoup its investments, Bonnicksen said.

"Even if we remove the dead trees, we still have a very serious
problem," he said. "The entire forest is at risk whether it has dead
trees in it or not."

Blackwell said the Forest Service favors shorter-term contracts
because the forest might not be able to sustain logging beyond that.
Environmental groups have also expressed concerns about giving the
timber industry a long-term foothold.

Before last year's fires, Big Bear Lake resident Gloria Wilson and her
husband spent months trying to get permission to remove a hollowed-out
tree they feared would fall. But when she called the fire department
about a dead tree a few weeks ago, it was removed immediately, along
with several others.

"The next week we were out of town and a neighbor told me they were
taking one down in a snowstorm," Wilson said. "It says they're on top
of things."
Comment by poster: In the past, I've labeled this drought as "merely
moderate". I think I can now say that it's starting to look like a
"serious drought" now, compared to past events. They continue to treat
the "symptoms" of the problem in removing hazard trees but, not many
are willing to cut any of their excess green trees, to free up water
for the trees they want so desperately to save. Part of their problem
is that THEY have a vision of what THEIR forest SHOULD look like. Not
what it should "naturally" be. You can't "grow" a rainforest next to a
Restoring natural function to public lands is what I'm all about. We
must focus on what is being left out there in the forest instead of
what is being removed. The public should continue to be wary of how
this happens. Watch us closely and ask questions, because this is
happening on public lands and it needs to be done right.

Larry,    forest sculptor

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