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Tinder-Dry Trees a Standing Problem

With most Arrowhead-area property saved, the vulnerability to fire in damaged pines is still high.

November 23, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

Three weeks after flames claimed close to 300 homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, residents are waking up to a familiar reality: The pine trees killed by drought and bark beetles remain, and bucolic communities are as much a tinder box as they were before the fires.

In fact, forestry and fire officials believe that the Old fire, which broke out in late October, may have increased the danger to the heavily populated Lake Arrowhead area.

"Because of the fact that we saved the majority of the homes in that community, that means the area of highest mortality is still there," said Ruth Wenstrom, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino National Forest. "If anything, it made it worse, because it killed additional brush."

Although the vast majority of dead timber is on public land, the trees that pose the most immediate threats stand on private property.

Homeowners, many of them on small lots with modest homes, face fees as high as $1,000 a tree to have cranes pluck dead pines from their yards.

The danger to these rural homeowners has been largely overlooked in national-forest policy debates taking place in Washington that center on thinning remote public woodlands through timber contracts.

Dale Bosworth, head of the U.S. Forest Service, had little comfort to offer during a visit to the region last week.

His agency lacks the money to thin out a forest where there is little commercial interest in timber, he said.

Instead, the Forest Service has concentrated efforts on trees that could block evacuation routes or damage communication centers, leaving broad swaths of public forest untouched.

"We still have hundreds of thousands, if not a million, dead trees that need to be removed," on both public and private land, said San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty.

Among the 49,000 private lots under its jurisdiction from Wrightwood to Big Bear, 6,000 have received warning notices, but his agency has struggled to get homeowners to comply.

"It's not a matter of resistance," Brierty said. "It's hard to get a citizen to write a $5,000 check.... We move on to those who can get it done."

Cedar Glen, a Lake Arrowhead-area community where more than 200 homes were wiped out by fire, is a case in point.

"It's mostly blue-collar workers in that area," Brierty said. "This was a very difficult place to get compliance. It's difficult terrain, a low-income area with not a lot of expendable income."

Any tree-removal effort comes too late for much of Cedar Glen, which was left a scorched moonscape by the fire. The near miss for the greater Arrowhead area, however, appears to have motivated more residents to fell diseased and dead trees on their property.

Right outside the office of the county's tree-removal assistance program behind the Lake Arrowhead fire station, reddish-brown branches droop from massive pines. Two inspectors walked the streets nearby and were hard-pressed to find property without a dead tree, until they came upon a parcel with a dozen fresh stumps from pines already felled.

Only a couple of weeks ago, longtime Twin Peaks resident Betsy Cowan found that a pine an arm's length from her balcony had died.

"I can look around and see on the other vacant lots, lots of dead ones," she said. "If they were cutting trees constantly, it would take five years."

A fellow Twin Peaks resident, Eileen Blakely, said: "Everyone I know has had trees taken down, including me. I had 11 taken down in the spring, and then there were four more. But I couldn't bring myself to take them down, because they weren't dead. Now they're dead too."

Behind Blakely's home, in a working-class enclave west of Lake Arrowhead, a brown pine soared 50 feet above her roof line. It will cost $900 to take it down, she said.

She has already spent $4,000 to fell trees on a quarter-acre plot she bought for $75,000 about 15 years ago.

"And that was just to drop the trees," Blakely said. "I had to deal with the mess."

A single mother, Blakely commutes daily to Rialto for work. She said she can't afford to live in the San Bernardino area.

"People have gotten second mortgages to take down trees," said Randy Schneider, who moved to Blue Jay -- a community along the western shore of Lake Arrowhead -- from Sherman Oaks three years ago, settling in what had been a family weekend home for more than two decades.

"We're lucky; we've taken down only two," he said.

In the spring, Schneider took it upon himself to negotiate a contract to take 11 other trees from neighboring vacant lots, after consulting absentee owners, who paid for the work. That brought the cost per tree down to $500, he said.

But more trees are dying around the Schneider home. "Everyone realizes we're in no better shape than we were before," said his wife, Christi.

Bosworth, the Forest Service director, said that ultimately there should be a way to find commercial use for at least some of the wood.

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