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Fire Season Arrives, but Not Funds to Clear Out Dead Trees

Money is delayed in the FEMA approval process. Gov. Davis flies over Southland mountains, calls risks staggering.

May 29, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Federal money to clear tens of thousands of dead trees that pose a serious fire threat to Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear and other Southern California mountain communities might not arrive until much of the summer fire season is over, officials said Wednesday.

After touring by helicopter the drought-stricken mountain areas in Riverside and San Bernardino counties Wednesday, Gov. Gray Davis called the problem "staggering" and promised to press federal officials to release all requested emergency funds as quickly as possible.

"We need resources now, not months from now," Davis said in an interview at Riverside Municipal Airport after an hourlong helicopter tour.

Riverside and San Bernardino officials asked months ago for an emergency federal grant of $3.3 million, money that would allow local officials to immediately clear thousands of dead trees from private land. The effort is crucial to preventing a wildfire that could threaten more than 75,000 residents in the drought-stricken communities.

But the request for funding has been caught up in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's approval process, and might not be available until late summer -- well into the region's fire season, which began Monday.

Despite the delay, state and federal agencies are moving ahead with efforts to prevent a disastrous wildfire. Crews are clearing evacuation roads in the mountains, San Bernardino County officials are starting to hire tree-clearing firms and prison officials are making plans to send inmate crews into the mountains to begin clearing dead trees and brush.

The request for federal assistance is a fraction of the nearly $300 million officials estimate would be needed to clear dead and dying trees on more than 550,000 acres in the region. Still, fire officials say the money is needed to kick-start the tree removal effort.

"We need it as soon as possible," said Denise Benson, manager of San Bernardino County's Office of Emergency Services. "Ninety days would concern me a lot."

Paul Jacks, deputy director for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, said the delay might be due to changes that FEMA requested for the grant applications. But he said it should be possible for the funds to be released much sooner.

"I don't understand why the bureaucratic process would take that long," Jacks said.

The governor said his tour renewed his passion to combat the problem. "Mother nature has given us a stiff challenge, but we are preparing to meet that challenge," he said.

The $3.3 million county officials have requested was left over from a fund set aside to make seismic improvements at Cal State San Bernardino. At the behest of local fire officials, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) introduced legislation in January that would reallocate the money for use in the drought-stricken mountains. The money has remained untouched.

A spokesman for Lewis said the congressman would look into the delay. "Mr. Lewis is committed to getting the money on the ground as soon as possible," Jim Specht said.

Four years of drought and a massive infestation of the bark beetle have left thousands of wooded acres of private and public land in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties vulnerable to wildfires.

The bark beetles infest drought-weakened trees. They bore into the bark by the thousands and hatch larvae, cutting off a tree's circulatory system, then move to the next tree.

In March, Davis declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties, which eased restrictions on tree removal in mountain areas. In February, fire officials began issuing notices to hundreds of property owners in San Bernardino County, warning them to remove dead or fatally infested trees within 30 days or face citations, which could result in liens against their properties for the cost of tree removal.

But at a cost of about $1,000 to remove each tree, many mountain residents have been struggling to come up with the money to abide by the notices.

San Bernardino County has earmarked about $1 million to help residents with the bills, with Riverside County setting aside an additional $500,000.

Recently, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal for a ballot initiative that would have imposed a tax to cover removal of drought-stricken and beetle-infested trees. Supervisors said they rejected the idea of a tax because it would not be equitable to all property owners and would not generate any money until the fire season passes.

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