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More Burning of Dead Forest Trees OKd

S.B. County supervisors increase incineration funds as removal of diseased pines steps up.

August 13, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

To keep up with the army of chainsaw-wielding crews cutting down thousands of dead trees in the fire-threatened San Bernardino Mountains, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to double the number of incinerators that turn the timber into ash.

Firefighters worry that the pines, weakened by four years of drought and a deadly bark beetle infestation, could fuel a wildfire that could endanger thousands of mountain residents.

Crews working for state and county agencies, and some contracted by private landowners, are removing about 460 tons of timber per day -- up from about 200 tons a day a month ago, county officials said.

To keep up, supervisors voted to set aside $175,000 for two new incinerators to supplement the two that operate nearly 24 hours a day near Lake Arrowhead.

The supervisors also gave county waste officials the option of expanding the size of the existing incinerators instead.

"We are being overwhelmed by the amount of wood waste," said Peter H. Wulfman, the county's division manager for solid waste.

The incinerators, known as Air Curtain Destructors, burn about 15 tons per hour at extremely high temperatures and produce very little air pollution, according to county officials.

A fan is used to blow air over the top of a massive pit where the fire is burning. The air catches smoke and small particles, blowing them back into the fire while fanning the flames.

But county officials conceded Tuesday that the incinerators have not been working perfectly. Last month, a tractor used to load the trees into the incinerators caught fire, forcing the operation to be temporarily shut down for repairs.

To prevent more equipment fires, county crews now clean the machinery of wood dust every eight hours, Wulfman said.

Also last month, an incinerator sparked a small brush fire nearby, he said. The fire extinguished itself because it was within a 300-foot area that had been cleared.

County crews are expanding the cleared area to 1,000 feet around the devices, Wulfman said.

Wulfman said the demand for additional incinerators is also a response to a drop in timber prices, due to a glut. A drop in prices has made it less profitable for loggers to haul the trees to timber mills as far away as Terra Bella, north of Bakersfield. Instead, the loggers increasingly are trucking the trees to the incinerators.

Even with two incinerators burning at full capacity, the county has had to haul a small portion of the tree waste to a Redlands landfill.

The cost of burning a ton of trees is about $12 while the cost of burying a ton of timber is nearly $30.

County fire officials estimate that communities such as Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake are surrounded by nearly 99,000 acres of dead, dying and diseased trees.

The trees, weakened by a four-year drought, are under attack by a tiny pest called the bark beetle, which bores into the bark by the thousands, killing the trees by cutting off their circulatory system.

San Bernardino County officials said they don't know how many people are involved in clearing the diseased trees. Many private property owners have hired crews to comply with a county ordinance requiring them to remove all dead and dying trees or face fines.

In addition to the private crews, about 200 inmates from county prisons are working in the mountain areas, clearing fire breaks, removing heavy brush and ensuring fire roads are open.

Some environmentalists praise the county for thinning the forests to prevent what could be a devastating conflagration. But they also worry that healthy, old-growth trees may be cut in the frenzy.

"It's the worst overcrowding situation that you can imagine," said Robert Reed, an environmentalist and Lake Arrowhead resident. "I'm very much in favor of getting rid of the standing matchsticks, as we call them."

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