The recent Thurman and Topanga wildfires remind us that catastrophic fires like those of October 2003 will return to Southern California’s four national forests, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
There is no greater priority than protecting lives and homes, California’s senior senator stated while encouraging the U.S. Forest Service to meet the $40 million shortfall to protect neighboring communities from the threat of catastrophic wildfires. I urge the Forest Service to provide the urgently needed funding to build effective buffers around our communities to save lives and thousands of home.
Feinstein dispatched a letter to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey on Monday stating: I am gravely concerned the Forest Service’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2006 provides a mere 16 percent of the needed fuel reduction funding for these forests (San Bernardino, Angeles, Cleveland and Los Padres), $7.5 million as compared to the $46.6 million needed.
The senator’s letter explained it could have been even worse had Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) not earmarked $5 million for fuels work in the San Bernardino National Forest. Last year, Congressman Lewis tacked on $30 million to the annual Pentagon spending bill to fund tree-removal projects.
These forests would have received only $2.5 million, the letter continued, or just five percent of the fuel reduction funds they need. In addition, there is no funding currently slated for the $8 million needed next year for rehabilitation and restoration of burned areas on the four Southern California forests.
At a recent Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council meeting, U.S. Forest Service Division Chief Randy Clausen told those attending the meeting many projects slated for 2006 will have to be shelved unless additional funding is secured.
Sen. Feinstein asked Rey and the Forest Service to work with me to find the resources to get this job done.
During her communication with the Forest Service, Feinstein emPhasized the need for the agency to increase the funding needed to remove the thousands of acres of dead and bark beetle-infested trees and overgrown chaparral in Southern California’s national forest.
The are nearly seven million Southern California residents living within an area considered at risk from the threat of catastrophic forest fires, Feinstein’s office explained. An at-risk community is often defined as extending one-and-a-half miles from a forest boundary.
In September, The Mountain News broke the story on the funding shortfall and how the reduced funding would impact projects scheduled for Running Springs, Arrowbear, Crestline, and Valley of Enchantment. Daily news media picked up the story earlier this month and now Feinstein has joined efforts to secure additional funding.
While we’re grateful Congress is still thinking about our local needs there are many community safety issues which won’t be addressed with only $5 million, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Ruth Wenstrom said. We’ll be able to work on far fewer acres this communing fiscal year.
Wenstrom cautioned the Miller Canyon project between Crestline and Silverwood Lake may be one of those subject to scaling down in 2006.
When The Mountain News revealed the funding cut, Crest Forest Fire Chief Bill Bagnell called the shortfall bad news.
We have worked real hard to put together a plan with agencies like the Forest Service, Bagnell stated, to protect our communities and when the budget gets cut it’s a great concern.
Bagnell reported there were still slash piles from last year’s projects in Valley of Enchantment and indicated the presence of those piles could hamper our ability to protect the area. I’m kind of shocked the funds have been cut so drastically.
Forest Service contractors are currently returning to evacuation corridors along Highways 18, 330, 173 and 138 to ensure residents can be evacuated safely if there is another fire. That work has been ongoing but contractors are making additional sweeps along the major routes removing dead and dying trees appearing since the last sweep.
Division Chief Clausen told the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council the pass on Highway 330 was basically done. The project was completed while the roadway was closed for repaving.
Clausen also announced slash piles would be burned in some areas possibly starting in mid-November depending on weather conditions.
We’ll supply as much advance notice as possible, Clausen stated.
A host of agencies are involved in the evacuation corridor clearance projects including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Trees burned during the Old Fire, CDF spokesperson Glenn Barley stated, held up pretty well last year. But we’ve seen additional tree failures already this year and crews working along the major roadways are creating a 200-300 foot buffer to allow residents to get off the mountain, if necessary.
We’ve done a lot of work on fuel breaks around mountain communities, Wenstrom said, but there is still a lot more to do. Our work in the community protection zones includes both dead tree removal and thinning of trees.
We have three priorities, Wenstrom explained. The first is removal of dead trees along the evacuation routes, the second is clearing around radio communication sites so they’ll continue to operate during a fire, and clearing community protection zones or fuel breaks around mountain communities.
We’re in pretty good shape on the first two items, the Forest Service spokesperson concluded. However, it’s an ongoing effort as additional trees continue to die.