United States — In Dart Canyon, just north of Lake Gregory in the San Bernardino Mountains, a six-man crew late last month cleared the forest floor of brush, small trees and low-lying limbs.
A powerful wood chipper chewed the debris into tiny bits, creating a din that echoed off the surrounding hills, as part of a new effort to reduce the fire danger for mountain residents.
Since 2004, San Bernardino County workers and contractors have removed a million dead trees around mountain communities. Now they are seeking to change a wildfire’s behavior by eliminating so-called ladder fuels.
Clearing green brush, removing trees no larger than 10 inches in diameter and cutting off the lower limbs of larger ones keeps a fire low to the ground and less intense.
A fire burning through such an area is less likely to reach a tree’s upper branches, or crown — a firefighter’s nightmare. Crown fires often spread faster and burn more intensely than other wildfires.
“There is no way to eliminate fire up here” in the mountains, said George Corley, a San Bernardino County Fire division chief in Lake Arrowhead. “You are trying to change the fire behavior.”
After the 2003 Old Fire, local officials viewed millions of dead, dying and diseased trees as the most immediate fire danger and set out to remove as many as possible from around communities and highways.
Backed by a $70 million federal grant to the county, plus more than $100 million spent by other agencies, local officials in March symbolically removed the one millionth tree and changed their focus to the type of work going on in Dart Canyon.
Grass Valley Fire
Firefighters and community leaders say the new effort already is paying off. They point to Deer Lodge Park, northwest of Lake Arrowhead, where October’s Grass Valley Fire came roaring toward homes.
The fire slowed as it burned into an area where a county crew had removed green brush and small trees from a steep slope. Off Edgecliff Drive in Deer Lodge Park last month, wood chips lay on the ground unburned, a sign of the fire’s lower intensity, fire officials said. The fire scorched trees but only on the lower parts.
“When the fire started, we were able to anchor it there, hold it and save the homes,” Corley said.
The Grass Valley Fire destroyed more than 170 homes, but the damage would have been worse without the fuel-reduction work the county has done since 2003’s devastating fires, he said.
“We lost hundreds, but we probably saved thousands,” Corley said.
Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, who represents the Lake Arrowhead area, said the success near Deer Lodge Park shows the value of the new thinning effort and the need for continued funding.
The county has $8 million left of the $70 million grant. More federal money could be on the way, but how much will come to San Bernardino County remains undecided.
“In the area burned by the Grass Valley Fire … damage is estimated at almost $90 million,” Hansberger said last month in prepared comments to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Interior subcommittee. “Our assessor’s office estimates the value of property saved in this fire to be more than $330 million.”
Millions Spent, Allocated
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2004 set aside more than $100 million for three Southern California counties to remove dead and dying trees from state, county and private land. San Bernardino County received $70 million.
Southern California Edison spent nearly $90 million to remove dead trees from around power lines. The U.S. Forest Service spent more than $17 million to reduce hazardous fuels throughout the San Bernardino National Forest.
Additionally, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, put $500 million into a spending bill that Congress approved last month to pay for firefighting, fire-prevention work and repairs to forest land damaged in October’s blazes.
The county’s tree-removal program, funded primarily through the $70 million federal grant, had its critics, with experts disagreeing on the effectiveness of removing only dead and dying trees. Some called for larger live trees to be cut.
But Tom Schott, a Natural Resource Conservation Service conservationist, said stands of dead trees “galvanized public attention” on the need to reduce fuels that can feed a severe wildfire. Initially, the county was permitted to spend the money only on removing them in areas close to communities, Schott said.
Buoyed by the evidence near Deer Lodge Park, the county is going back into areas where workers previously took out dead trees and now is removing green brush and small trees, San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty said.
The work is taking place near Lake Arrowhead, Lake Gregory, Crestline, Running Springs and Big Bear Lake.
Creating a Barrier
Brierty said the work aims to put a “barrier around the northern end” of the communities to protect them from fires fueled by fierce Santa Ana winds. In October, winds topping 60 mph from the north drove the Slide and Grass Valley fires.
The county is becoming more efficient with what little money is left, Brierty said. Thinning 1 acre used to cost $3,300. Now, it’s down to $1,500 because of increased competition for the work, he said.
So far, workers have completed the thinning of brush and small trees on 325 acres, said Rick Aguayo, a Natural Resources Conservation Service conservationist. At the current rate of spending, the $8 million remaining will last another year and be enough to complete work on thousands of acres, federal officials said.
Better Building Materials
Dr. Chad Hanson, director of the Northern California-based John Muir Project and a forest and fire ecologist, said the work the county is now doing to remove small diameter trees and green brush is based on sound science and will prove effective
But he stressed that proper thinning can go only so far, especially if homes are not built with fire-resistant roofing and siding.
Thinning work around a community’s edges won’t do any good if the areas directly around homes are not cleared of thick brush, he said. Embers from a wildfire can easily fly over a thinned area.
“In my view, county, state, and federal funds would be best spent directly helping homeowners to thin brush immediately adjacent to structures and to fireproof their homes,” Hanson said.
Stiffer Building Rules
Fire officials and Natural Resources Conservation Service officials agree that defensible space and better building materials are needed. Everyone must do their part, they said.
Brierty said he hopes to go before the Board of Supervisors in February or March with a proposal with more stringent requirements for homeowners in fire-prone areas to clear brush and small trees from their property.
Hansberger said in an interview that he hopes by spring to have a proposal before his board colleagues to require existing homes be retrofitted, such as mandating that homeowners replace shake roofs with a safer, more fire-resistant material.