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S.B. County Sets Fund to Fell Sickly Trees

June 11, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create a $1-million fund to help residents remove thousands of drought-stricken and beetle-infested trees that pose a growing fire danger to Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear Lake and other mountain communities.

Crews will be hired to cut dead and dying trees on the private property of county residents who cannot afford to pay for the work. The residents would then be required to repay the county later. County officials are still drafting a repayment plan.

The fund was adopted unanimously only a few weeks after the board rejected a plan to hold a countywide vote on a proposed property tax to pay for the tree removal. The supervisors noted that such a tax would not have generated any money until next year, long after the current fire season is over.

Several mountain residents who testified before the board praised the plan that was approved.

"We need the trees to come down today," Lake Arrowhead resident Bob Spoeneman told the board. He noted that much more funding was needed, but he called the revolving account a good start.

Under the plan proposed by county staff, residents who are not able to repay the county for the tree-cutting work -- estimated at $1,000 per tree -- could face fines and penalties and ultimately a lien placed on their property.

But Supervisor Dennis Hansberger said he doesn't want to penalize residents who cannot repay. He instructed the staff to return to the board with a repayment plan that does not impose fines for late repayment.

"We don't want to create a hardship on people," he said. "We just want to address an emergency."

Four years of drought and a massive infestation by bark beetles have left thousands of trees dead or dying on more than 550,000 wooded acres in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties. In San Bernardino County, firefighters fear that the trees will provide ample fuel for a wildfire that could threaten more than 75,000 mountain residents and hundreds of homes.

The board also approved a plan to hire 22 workers, including fire prevention specialists and heavy-equipment operators, if the county receives a $2.7-million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The county sought the money in April, but the approval process has been delayed.

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