Major shift possible in century-old wildfire suppression policy
published by The Mercury News
RIVERSIDE, Calif.(AP) – A major shift in the century-old policy for suppressing the wildfire danger in Southern California’s national forests could be coming thissummer.
Unchecked growth has left the region’s woodlands dangerously overgrown and the new plans will be part legacy of 2003’s deadly firestorms, part science and part popularopinion.
U.S. Forest Service planners have worked three years on the new management guidelines and they are now poring over nearly 11,000 separate concerns contained in more than 3,000 letters and e-mails sent in response to an initial draft released lastyear.
Plans for the San Bernardino, Cleveland, Los Padres and Angeles national forests should be complete this summer, project leader Ron Pughsaid.
It will be an aggressive strategy of thinning forests and controlled burns to restore the forests to a more natural state. Tightening restrictions on recreation and expansion of wilderness areas are also possible, Pughsaid.
“The plan reflects a shift in the agency’s philosophy,” Pugh told The Press-Enterprise. “We spent the last 100 years or so suppressing fires. We need to look differently at the role of fire in the forest, and that’s a tricky one because we have so many people living out therenow.”
From Idyllwild to Lake Arrowhead, more than 100,000 people live in the San Bernardino National Forest, and those numbers can triple on holidays and weekends. Also in the mix: The forests are home to 60 threatened and endangered species and 168 animal and plant species that are consideredsensitive.
“We’ve heard from people, a lot of people – from people who think they ought to be able to drive their motorcycle wherever they want, to those who feel you shouldn’t be allowed to wear shoes in the forest,” Pughsaid.
Drought conditions for six years exposed flaws in forest management that included suppressing wildfire, even when ignited naturally by lightning strikes deep in federal forests. Pine-killing bark beetles then moved in, killing thousands oftrees.
“No one ever envisioned what would happen with the drought and the beetles,” said Bernie Weingardt, deputy forester for the U.S. Forest Service. “It just got kind of out of whack when it wasn’t doing what nature was used todoing.”
Eighteen months ago, wildfires tore across about three-quarters of a million acres, leading fire officials, politicians and forest residents to call for federal policychanges.
“The fires and the bark beetle crisis brought it home for everybody,” said Dyberg, president of the Mountain Rim Fire Safe Council. “We’ve felt and experienced the downside of an unhealthy forest and now everybody is looking at the forestdifferently.
“I look at the trees and I see fuel for fires.”
Forest managers and firefighters said thinning and controlled burning were nownecessary.