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Wildfire Fight Gets More Funds

U.S. gives $5 million to battle effects of drought and insects in the San Bernardino Mountains and help replace cuts in state's forestry budget.

August 09, 2003|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Firefighters battling bark beetles and a prolonged drought, both of which are killing thousands of trees in the San Bernardino Mountains, will get an additional $5 million to prevent wildfires, a federal official announced Friday.

"When you fly over the forest, you really see things that are truly disturbing," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said after a helicopter tour of the San Bernardino National Forest.

The money brings to $13 million the amount available to the U.S. Forest Service and other fire agencies to clear dead trees, thin clumps of living trees and underbrush, clear evacuation routes and remove dead vegetation around communication sites.

The announcement comes at a time when the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection will lose $50 million because of the state's budget problems.

The state Legislature has ordered the Forestry Department to raise that much plus $2.5 million by imposing a fee (the amount is yet to be determined) on as many as 7.5 million residents on land for which the department is responsible.

"This is unprecedented. We've never gone down this road, where we take a $50-million cut and are then told to recover it," said Karen Terrill, a Forestry Department spokeswoman in Sacramento. The department protects about 32 million acres, she said.

Veneman on Friday also touted President Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative." The bill, which has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and now goes to the Senate, would limit environmental and judicial reviews of tree-thinning projects aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires.

Critics have said the initiative is an attempt to promote more commercial logging in national forests. The Sierra Club has argued that the bill would allow logging deep in the backcountry of forests rather than focus on clearing those areas closest to homes.

The situation in the San Bernardino Mountains "is a very good example of why the active management of forests is so necessary," Veneman said. "The president is absolutely committed to this initiative."

Some fire officials said such selective cutting of otherwise healthy trees is important, especially in drought-afflicted forests where dense groves of trees are fighting for scant water, resulting in die-offs.

"It's like a lifeboat; there's too many trees and not enough moisture," said San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty. In the San Bernardino Mountains, dead and dying pine trees have threatened to collapse on homes, power lines and evacuation routes. They also are fodder for wildfires. In addition, swarms of bark beetles are burrowing into trees, laying eggs that infest and kill them.

The pines try to defend themselves by drowning the beetles and their eggs in sap. But increasingly, globs of the pitch encapsulate sawdust instead, said Ruth Wenstrom, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.

"It means the beetles won," she said.

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