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$30 Million in U.S. Funds OKd to Fight Beetles

Money would aid the effort against pine bark infestation that plagues Inland Empire forests. Congressional approval is expected in weeks.

September 18, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

A key congressional committee approved a $30-million measure Wednesday that could provide funds needed to combat the destructive bark beetle infestation in the mountain communities of San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties.

If approved by both houses, as expected by the end of the month, the money would be the largest government appropriation to battle the infestation. The funds were approved by a Senate-House conference committee at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).

A four-year drought and a widespread beetle infestation have killed or weakened thousands of pines on more than 400,000 acres throughout Southern California. Firefighters and mountain residents worry that the trees will act as dry kindling, fueling a fire that could threaten communities such as Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead.

The funding could be used by the U.S. Forest Service to clear evacuation routes, areas around emergency shelters and communication sites and build buffer zones around highly populated communities.

"This money is absolutely critical and comes not a moment too soon," Feinstein said in a prepared statement.

Lewis said the money comes under an emergency application, allowing forestry officials to begin spending the money almost as soon as the measure receives final approval.

Lewis was instrumental in releasing $3.3 million in unused seismic reinforcement funds in June to help crews prepare for a forest fire. Also in June, Gov. Gray Davis signed an executive order, releasing $13 million for additional firefighting crews and equipment to monitor Southern California forests.

But Lewis warned that the extent of the damage to the forest is so great that the money and equipment now available are still not enough to protect the region in the event of a forest fire.

"While this $30 million is unprecedented, it is only the beginning point," Lewis said in an interview. "I think this challenge will cost hundreds of millions of dollars."

Firefighters say they are in a race to remove the dry, dead pines that residents call "standing matchsticks."

In recent months, government and private crews have been removing nearly 800 tons of timber a day from forests in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. So much wood has been cut that in August, San Bernardino County officials approved funding to buy a second incinerator to burn the timber.

But fire officials say thousands of dead trees remain.

"We've barely scratched the surface," said Tracey Martinez, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. "There is definitely much more work to be done."

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