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Bid to Avoid Fires Fuel Controversy

Environmentalists say the Forest Service's effort to clear dead trees is only increasing the danger of blazes while destroying habitat.

June 22, 2003|Deborah Sullivan Brennan | Special to the Times

IDYLLWILD — Along the back roads northeast of this mountain community are stacks of branches, brush and downed logs, remnants of an intensive effort to build a firebreak to shield the area from wildfires this summer.

For months, Forest Service crews and a private contractor have labored to remove dead trees in hopes that the cleared zone will stop a potential blaze from reaching nearby homes.

A four-year drought and recent bark beetle infestation have laid waste to Southern California's mountains, killing 20% to 100% of the pines across 415,000 acres of Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Firebreaks like the one in the Pine Cove area of Idyllwild create buffer zones of sparser vegetation in the withered forest, enabling firefighters to better defend nearby homes and human life, officials say.

"It's very important, urgent, critical work because there is a high threat of fires to these mountain communities at this time," said Jon Regelbrugge, forest vegetation management team leader for the San Bernardino National Forest.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, say the firebreak's construction may increase the risk of fire as crews clear dead trees, leaving piles of debris for later cleanup. Further, they say the project threatens several sensitive species in the area, including rare spotted owls and the threatened southern rubber boa.

"What they're doing is removing the economically valuable larger trees, and leaving behind all the flammable material," said Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, a nonprofit forest protection organization that monitors logging operations throughout California.

There are historical reasons for his concern. Some of the most destructive forest fires in the nation's history started in piles of brush left behind by loggers.

In addition, environmentalists fear that the project sets a precedent for introducing logging operations in the name of fire prevention, and worry that an infusion of federal funds pending in Congress may spur a free-for-all that could harm, rather than defend, the nation's forests.

Forest Service officials say the area is safer than it was before the firebreak construction began, when a thick growth of dead trees and brush stood beneath the towering pines. Although much of the debris may not be removed until winter -- well after fire season subsides -- they say they're rushing to complete the work as summer sun scorches the already desiccated forest.

The cut trees range in diameter from less than 10 inches to larger than 36, Regelbrugge said. While the project aims to remove dead and dying pines, some live trees blocking them may also be cut.

Work began this spring and will likely continue through the summer. Forest Service hot shot crews, California Department of Forestry workers, local volunteers and a private logging contractor fell dead and damaged trees and bushes, then haul out timber and stack piles of brush and branches that remain.

Hot shot crews will chip the piles closest to homes, then burn the rest of the debris during cooler weather, said Norm Walker, fire management officer for the San Jacinto District of the San Bernardino National Forest.

Environmentalists say, however, that the very conditions that make it too dangerous to burn the debris also make it hazardous to leave it unattended throughout the summer. Pointing to some of the Forest Service's own research, they say that the large dead trees form important wildlife habitat and are less flammable than the brush and branches left behind.

"If this burns, it's going to go up like a bonfire," said Monica Bond, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, as she hiked through the piles of debris. Stopping to examine a recently cut Ponderosa pine, she said the 4-foot-diameter tree would have been unlikely to go up in flames.

"It's got a huge fire scar" from a previous blaze, she noted.

Forest Service officials acknowledge that the debris may pose a fire hazard, but maintain that larger trees, many of which still bear dry needles and branches, would as well.

"I have watched large-diameter, 3-foot logs burn in wildfires," Regelbrugge said. "I have watched fires run up 100-foot snags."

Penny Morgan, a professor of forest resources at the University of Idaho, said large logs can smolder for days or weeks, confounding firefighting efforts. But branches, twigs and needles play the greatest role in determining a fire's intensity.

The project's timing is also a point of contention. With chainsaws buzzing and trucks rolling through the backwoods, the work falls within the nesting season of one of the last pairs of California spotted owls in the mountain range. Both the forest management plan for spotted owls and the biological evaluation for the firebreak call for work disruptive to the owls to take place outside their breeding season, between March and June.

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