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The State | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Fires Roaring Mostly Where Prevention Funding Lagged

The scrubland called chaparral has seen the worst flames, whereas forests, especially in the north state, get a bigger protection budget.

October 30, 2003|Bettina Boxall and Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writers

As they have many times in the past, this year's most destructive wildfires are burning primarily in chaparral, the brush lands that are the perennial stepchild of wildfire funding and management.

It is the forests of pines that get the attention. When President Bush announced his Healthy Forests Initiative to combat Western wildfires, it was in Oregon timber country.

Yet as this week's mounting loss of life and homes demonstrates, it is fire in California's unglamorous, commercially worthless and ubiquitous chaparral that often exacts the most devastating toll.

While the wildfires in recent days have moved into the forested high country of the San Bernardino Mountains, much of what has burned is scrubland running like a dried-out Christmas wreath around the Southern California sprawl.

It is a fire-prone, heavily populated landscape that eats up enormous sums of firefighting money but gets comparatively little preventive funding to reduce the threat. Even when there is money, there is no blueprint for keeping it in check for long. Cut back, and it quickly regrows. Try to carefully burn it, and homeowners and air-quality officials often resist. And the chaparral can be uncooperative.

"I've been in a lot of prescribed burns in Southern California," said Robin Wills, a regional fire ecologist with the National Park Service. "Most of the time, we aren't successful. You cannot get the shrubs to burn, no matter what you do. They have adapted to burn only under the most extreme conditions. And we are generally uncomfortable with those conditions," he said, referring to hot, dry weather associated with out-of-control wildfires. "With a week like this past week, whether we had burned before or not probably wouldn't have made much difference in the outcome," he added. "The Southern California landscape is prone to very high-intensity fire events."

Still, some experts argue that much more could be done, and they point to the gap between funding in the region's national forests and the timbered north.

"We see the vast majority of Forest Service resources in this state go to Northern California forests, where trees exist," said Tim Allyn, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club. "Southern California forests get far fewer funds even though our forests receive far more visits."

Of the $53 million for hazardous-fuel reduction distributed to California's national forests in 2003, a total of less than $4 million went to the Cleveland, Angeles, San Bernardino and Los Padres.

In the last six months, Congress has appropriated millions more for the region to help remove huge swaths of insect-killed trees in the San Bernardino Mountains.

But Allyn argues that even that was slow to come: "The funding is late. We were slow to move, and for the past couple of years you had fire scientists and the community saying to their elected leaders [that] when a fire comes up here, it will be disastrous."

Jim Specht, a spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) helped marshal a $30-million congressional appropriation for dead-tree removal in the San Bernardinos, said Lewis lobbied for a year for the money. Approved last month, $10 million was sent to the Forest Service and $20 million was earmarked for use by the state and private landowners.

Funding shortages are often noted as a problem.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a goal of clearing brush and conducting prescribed burns on about 150,000 acres annually statewide. It actually gets to only 30,000 acres a year.

"We have backlogs of projects that are planned," said CDF Director Andrea Tuttle. "The situation in Southern California is that these are fires that are bigger than what a modest fuel-reduction project would help with."

The authors of an August report to Congress by the General Accounting Office reported that federal land managers frequently said their work was hampered by a lack of money. Fuel reduction money was often diverted to firefighting. For that and other reasons, the report stated, "the Forest Service and Interior [Department] reduced fuels on 56% of the approximately 4 million acres they could have treated.''

In the brushy Los Padres National Forest, stretching north of the Los Angeles Basin, fire management officer Patrick Pontes said in an interview that his staff can afford to conduct prescribed burns on only about a third to half of the acreage that it could if it had more funding.

"We have only been able to treat 3,000 to 5,000 acres a year," Pontes said. "We feel we could easily burn up to 10,000 to 15,000 acres a year."

He said fuel reduction, while often supported by the public, has sometimes been opposed on ecological grounds, including concerns that late-winter burns will destroy wildlife forage. The GAO study also reported that Los Padres officials said many of their fuel-reduction projects were delayed for months while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evaluated possible harm to endangered species.

Mark Rey, the U.S. Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, insisted that the administration's Healthy Forests Initiative would accelerate a variety of fuel-reduction projects. "Both the Senate compromise and the House bill will provide us tools that will be a help in chaparral as well as forest systems," Rey said in an interview. "Neither bill focuses to the exclusion of the other. When we do treatment in chaparral systems, we are often confronted by the same procedural impediments as elsewhere."

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Times staff writer Ken Weiss contributed to this report.

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