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Devastation of SB Forest

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January 24, 2003 10:02AM
Hard times fuel fire threat

01/24/2003

By BEN GOAD
THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE

It will cost an estimated $300 million to save the San Bernardino National Forest from the threat of catastrophic fire posed by a four-year drought that has left tens of thousands of trees parched and ready to burn, officials said this week.

But in the current economic climate, the short-term prospects of the government allocating even a portion of that money to the "silent disaster" are grim at best.

Gov. Davis's refusal to declare a state of emergency and a failed attempt to get millions of unspent federal dollars have left elected officials no choice but to seek legislation -- a lengthy process.

Meanwhile, trees are dying at an alarming rate. The magnitude of devastation has more than doubled since October.

"We can either spend money now mitigating the problem or we can spend an awful lot more later fighting a fire and trying to save our mountain communities," said State Sen. Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga.

On Wednesday, more than 50 fire officials, forest officials, local fire safe council members and political representatives from around Southern California crowded into a Temecula gymnasium to gauge the problem and discuss solutions.

They were greeted with troubling news from San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Gene Zimmerman, who recently toured federal forest land in Riverside and San Bernardino counties by helicopter.

An estimated 151,000 acres in the San Bernardino forest have been affected by what has become the worst drought in recorded Inland history, Zimmerman said. Tree mortality rates, which have been increased by waves of pine-killing bark beetles, are from 40 percent to 60 percent, he said.

Slightly more than three months ago, tree mortality was said to be at 25 percent to 40 percent on roughly 60,000 acres.

Big bucks unlikely

During Wednesday's meeting, Zimmerman told the group that $300 million over several years will be needed to reverse the problem with controlled burns, tree removal and increased forestry resources.

That $300 million is 10 times the national forest's current annual budget. Only $1 million to $2 million is reserved for hazard mitigation, said Mike Florey, director of engineering and recreation for the national forest.

Zimmerman said the forest needs about $6 million this year to help avoid a catastrophic fire. Next fiscal year, he said, the job will take between $20 million and $25 million. Those figures are based on initial estimates of the damage associated with the drought and bark beetle.

"It's kind of like we're making an initial strike on a wildfire," Zimmerman said. "We're chasing this thing. We don't even know what we've got yet."

Rocky Saunders, programs branch chief for the Governor's Office of Emergency Service, said Wednesday that the state has no plans to declare a state of disaster emergency, a step both counties have sought for months.

"There is a clear threat posed by the drought," he said. "But this problem doesn't fit any programs that we have, so a declaration wouldn't do anything."

In theory, a state declaration of emergency would open the door for a presidential disaster proclamation. But, Saunders said, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have said no such proclamation will be issued.

"FEMA is basically not in the drought business," he said. "They gave us very clear direction that they don't intend to declare an emergency for drought-related problems."

New legislation planned

Absent a state or federal declaration, state OES officials, who facilitated Wednesday's meeting, said legislators must devise programs specifically aimed at dealing with problems caused by the drought and bark beetle.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, a Redlands Republican who helps control the federal purse strings from a senior spot on the House Appropriations Committee, in November announced a plan to pump $3.3 million into the forest initiative. His idea, to use hazard mitigation funds left over from an Inland earthquake-preparedness project, was shot down.

"Mr. Lewis had hoped FEMA would be able to move that money over administratively," said Lewis spokesman Jim Specht. "He was disappointed to hear they didn't think they had the authority to do it without legislation."

An omnibus spending bill, under which that money could be allocated to the forest, is awaiting discussion by congress, which reconvenes next week, Specht said.

On the state level, Brulte has proposed a bill that would allow the California Department of Forestry to divert money to the drought-devastated forest. Under bill SB8, which has not come out of committee, money from CDF's general fund could be spent on drought-related issues.

Reach Ben Goad at (909)890-4450 or bgoad@pe.com
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Devastation of SB Forest

katrina island 461January 24, 2003 10:02AM

Re: Devastation of SB Forest

Wizard 546January 24, 2003 08:21PM



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